First published in A Punk Rock Future, October 2019.
Whenever I’d ask John how old he was, he’d tell me he was “born in ’75, same year as the Sex Pistols.” Not that this answered my question since I wasn’t sure what year it was and the old-timers didn’t seem interested in stuff like that. All I knew is he was old. Old as fuck, probably. And I guessed I was somewhere in my twenties, though I couldn’t be sure since John was my only family and he didn’t know when I’d been born.
Whatever age he was, it hadn’t slowed him down. He still got up every day to scavenge the old town with me in search of stuff we could use back at the trailer park. Cans of food maybe, medication, and of course, the odd punk album. Not that we’d had much luck today, I thought, staring at the handful of disposable razors and single jar of pickled beets we’d come back with.
“Maybe Aiden’ll want these,” I said, holding up the jar. “If they’re even still good.”
“Be better if you took him the razors,” said John, as he rifled through his record collection. “Then he could finally shave off that poser hairstyle.”
John was technically my grandfather, though I never called him “grandpa,” or “gramps,” or any of those other names. We were nothing but “John” and “Joey” to each other since the day my mother dumped me outside his trailer and told him she was moving on to bigger and better.
I don’t blame her. This life ain’t for everyone. Not when just a few miles down the road you can apply for admission to the place most people just call “The City.” All you have to do is sign over a small piece of yourself. In exchange for that, you get a new and better life. A life where you don’t have to work so hard just to stay alive. A life where you’re always happy. Who wouldn’t want that? Thing is, they don’t take kids, so when my mom made the decision to go, it meant leaving me behind. I don’t remember her much. She smelled like cinnamon gum and cigarette smoke. She wore dangly earrings that glinted in the light. I remember that, but not much else.
But I don’t resent her. After all, if she hadn’t pawned me off on John, I probably wouldn’t have become friends with Aiden. I think it was my not having a mom back when Aiden lost his that brought us close in the first place. We’d been like brothers ever since. He was the only one I felt I could talk to about my mother. The only one I could talk to about a lot of things.
John won’t talk about mom. He doesn’t get why she did what she did, and he sure as hell doesn’t get why she couldn’t wait for me to grow up before she did it. But Aiden and me, we get it.
I’d been thinking about my mom a lot more lately. I’d thought about her again today when we were crossing the highway back from our pathetic attempt at scavenging. Sometimes, like today, you see small groups of people heading for The City. I couldn’t help but think that my mom had headed down that same road years ago and hadn’t looked back. But I kept that to myself, not wanting to get John started.
“She ain’t nothing like her mother,” John would say, on the rare occasions he got stoned enough to think of her at all. And that was about the worst thing he could say about anyone because John worshipped my grandmother Rebel, though she’d been gone since before I arrived. I wondered what he’d say about me if I told him about my talks with Aiden these past few weeks. Not for the first time, I wondered what Rebel would’ve said.
Having finally settled on a record, I watched John set up the player by our firepit like I had most nights since I was a kid. He then brought over the record and ran his hand almost lovingly across the sleeve. In the dim light of dusk, I couldn’t see the album he was holding from where I sat but it must’ve been one of Rebel’s favorites from the way he was studying it and taking his time.
John didn’t have a lot of records in his collection. He used to tell me about the days when they had entire stores full of vinyl records. Later, came all the digital versions, but John considered himself a purist. Nowadays the digital stuff was reserved for the people in The City anyway. Us outsiders had no way to connect to that.
Not that vinyl records were easy to come by either. They’re fragile things, especially when they get old. They break and scratch easily. And John admitted that rigging up the turntable so he could play them had been damn near impossible. But he’d done it for Rebel—he would’ve done anything for her.
I grew up hearing about this mythical being—the love of John’s life. Rebel was the one who introduced him to punk. She used to call him Johnny and she gave him the beaten-down leather jacket he never took off. Rebel had stitched the word “Rotten” on the back herself.
“Fucked up her fingers good pushin’ that needle through the leather, but when that woman got it in her mind to do something, no force in the world could stop her!” John told me on more than one occasion.
I never knew Rebel, but I often feel like I did. I was raised on her old punk records. Most people thought it a waste of batteries to run a record player like that, but to John it was more than just music. Those old records spoke to him, the way Rebel once had.
It was Rebel who’d first started gathering the people at the trailer park. Those who The City rejected or who didn’t want any part of it. She took care of them, nursing them through sickness, making sure they had food, clothing, a roof over their heads—all inspired by the punk kids of her youth who used to feed the homeless.
John finally placed the record on the player, easing the needle on to the first groove with care. As the music started I knew the album he’d chosen: Road to Ruin by The Ramones. Oh shit, I thought.
John had surprised Rebel with a working record player on the day they decided was her sixtieth birthday. Along with it came the first album in their collection: Road to Ruin. They’d had another collection long ago, before The City had been established and the world had changed, but with all their many relocations over the years, they’d been forced to leave it behind, a few albums at a time.
Rebel had been into old-school punk. The Ramones hadn’t been her favorite, but John says her face lit up all the same when she saw the album cover. After that he did all he could to add to her collection.
Even now, over two decades since he lost her, John keeps his eyes peeled for old records when we scavenge, always looking to grow her collection if he can. When we find vinyl that’s not punk, we give it to Old Man Lincoln. He’ll take just about anything, though his taste runs to jazz and R&B. John lets him borrow the player now and then, so he can listen to them.
I knew John was missing Rebel extra bad tonight because he brought out that old Ramones record. Whenever he listened to that I knew to make myself scarce. It was just a matter of time before John got weepy and he didn’t like me seeing him like that. I didn’t much like seeing him like that either.
“I know you see me as a tough shit-kicker even though I’m old,” John said. “But when I think of my Rebel, gone so long now, I don’t feel that tough. She was both my strength and my biggest weakness.”
I nodded, but already I was mentally headed for Aiden’s.
“It’s not enough to say you’re punk,” John continued. “My Rebel, she was punk in her soul. She knew what that meant, and part of that for her meant taking care of whatever family you made for yourself.”
I knew John took that to heart. Once she passed on he’d taken up the mantle and spent his days, “doing his rounds,” as he called it. Checking up on our neighbors and helping them in any way he could. His own needs were simple. They involved taking no shit from anyone or life itself for that matter. And of course, punk music.
“Listen to what they’re saying, Joey. Really feel what they’re trying to tell you. Punk isn’t just a song to chill to, like so much other music. Punk’s a message about a way of life—a way of being. Punk’s about thinking for yourself, and that’s a rare quality in people. Don’t be one of the sheep. Sheep get eaten.”
“That old man’s so full of shit,” Aiden would’ve said.
Me, I was torn. Some of what John said did seem to have a sort of wisdom to it, though I had to take his word for it on the sheep. I hadn’t seen any sheep outside of picture books in all my life. I figured they must live somewhere, but around here they must have all been eaten because there was nothing but mangy coyotes and gophers for miles.
I agreed with Aiden’s point of view too though. Like me, he’d grown up in this world. He got it. And he couldn’t look back on the old world for his lessons any more than I could. All that was long gone. We had to look to the future and we had few alternatives. It was easy for John to say. He was old. He’d lived his life. He could afford to sit around listening to old records and be at peace with that. But we wanted more.
“Did I ever tell you about how I met Rebel?”
I shook my head. The old-timers didn’t like to talk about the old world much. Whenever one of them did, I listened, because I wanted to know where we came from. I wanted to know what made them the way they were now. So I stayed in my chair, even as that old record spun nostalgia into John’s mood.
“I was raised strict,” he said. “Didn’t know a damn thing about real music, definitely nothing about punk. Rebel, she was raised by old hippies who taught her to question authority and live by her own rules. If my car hadn’t broken down that day, our paths would never have crossed. I told her it was dangerous for a girl to give a lift to a boy she didn’t know. She just laughed and asked if I was gonna preach to her about Jesus next.”
I knew John had never been religious. The only gospel he ever revered was the Gospel of Rebel, which came through the mouths of singers from her favorite punk bands. She and John were an odd couple at first, but for some reason they just worked. And in the end, he became as punk as she was.
As for me, I had mixed feelings about it all. Some of those bands were just noise to me, though I knew better than to admit it to John. I listened to the words, like John told me, but I didn’t get the message.
What I did understand about life was this: we lived in a broken-down trailer, surrounded by other broken-down trailers, outside a long-abandoned town where we spent most of our time just trying to survive. It was all I’d ever known. I was grown now though, and as a grown-ass man, there was no reason I couldn’t join The City. Aiden was going and was just waiting for me to figure out if I was going with him, but I knew John would lose his shit if I even brought it up. Instead I skirted the issue.
“What was it like, toward the end of the old world?” I asked, taking advantage of his willingness to look to the past tonight. “Did you and Rebel know what was coming?”
John shifted in the old lawn chair, causing it to creak beneath him. He didn’t say anything for a long while, and I began to wonder if I should’ve just kept my mouth shut. When I was about to give up and take off, he spoke again.
“It was billed as The City of the Future,” he said. “We thought nothing of it at first. Seemed alright, all high-tech and run by an artificial intelligence. It wasn’t until everyone started losing their minds that we began to see things differently.”
I knew enough of the old stories to know that he meant “losing their minds” literally. From the bits and pieces I’d gleaned from the old timers over the years, I knew the A.I. hadn’t been satisfied with just running the city for long. Like me, it had wanted more.
It started by offering the dying a chance to extend their lives by downloading their consciousness into its mainframe where they could then exist in a virtual paradise. But soon even those nowhere near death began signing up to become part of the collective. People like my mother. The A.I. had called it a symbiosis. Connecting to human brains would give it room to expand further, to grow and to learn in new ways until our bodies became too frail to be worth sustaining or we simply decided we wanted to move on from a corporeal existence.
“But don’t you think the people in the collective are happy?” I said, taking my chances with his mood. “I mean, I hear that since the A.I. is in their minds, it can tailor make their perfect existence.”
“Puppets,” John said. “That’s what Rebel called them. They’re nothing but marionettes with that A.I. pulling their strings any which way it wants. They’re not even real people anymore. Try to visit your mother some time. See what I mean.”
I never had. I didn’t remember her anyway, so what was the point? But I knew what he was talking about. I’d heard from others who did. The people in The City were different. They were themselves, but they weren’t. Still, it seemed to me like a small price to pay.
“In the early days of punk, a lot of bands used to yell at the audience,” John said then. It sounded like the random tangents taken by an aging mind, but I knew him well enough to know he was heading somewhere. “They’d insult them,” he continued. “They’d get them all riled up ’til they couldn’t control themselves and wound up either fighting each other or dancing like they might as well be.”
“What was the point?”
“The point, Joey, was to wake them up! Rock their foundations ’til they came out of the daze that society imposed on them and started using their own minds! From there, what happened didn’t matter. What choices they made were irrelevant, so long as people made the choices that were right for them. Punk was about giving people freedom from a prison they didn’t even know they were in! Don’t you see? That city is about as far from punk as you can get.”
I knew that in John’s eyes the people of The City were asleep. They thought they had freedom, but they were just an extension of an intelligence that had used their own laziness and complacency against them. An intelligence that had traded them their real lives for a dream—an artificial one at that.
But that still didn’t sound so bad to me.
I’d gone hungry. I’d felt cold in winter and the ache of thirst during summer droughts. I’d lived with my own stink so long I couldn’t smell it anymore. I’d seen people die because we couldn’t scavenge them the meds they needed—or the ones we found were too old to work. Hell, that’s how I’d met Aiden. John and I had found penicillin for his mother’s pneumonia but we’d been too late. Aiden was only around thirteen then, still too young to move to The City, but I know he started thinking and planning for it the moment his mom breathed her last.
“If ever the world needed punk to wake it up, it’s now,” John said, rolling a joint. “I mean, look at us! I’m only glad my Rebel moved on before she could see her only daughter sell out like that!”
“You know I don’t like it when you talk about her like that.”
“You don’t even remember her.”
“She’s still my mother—and still your daughter, in case you forgot. I wonder what your precious Rebel would think to hear you talk about her like that.”
I didn’t wait for him to tell me. This was my cue to leave.
“Any poser can grow a mohawk. That don’t make ’em punk,” John called after me.
He was referring to Aiden, who wasn’t here to defend himself, but I’d heard it all before and by this point I didn’t care.
Aiden let me crash at his trailer. We talked about our options and his plans.
“I don’t know why you’re even hesitating, man.”
“It’s just…the thought of leaving John alone. I’m all he’s got left. Maybe I should just wait until he dies. How much longer could that be?”
“Are you kidding me?” said Aiden. “That old bastard’s tough as hell! I’ll bet if the reaper wants him he’ll have to show up in person and ask him ‘pretty please’.”
Mad as I was at John, I knew I couldn’t stay away for long. I was back sitting by the fire with him the following evening, this time much relieved to be hearing The Clash’s London Calling. After a while though, he turned down the volume, which I knew meant he had something serious to say.
“What the hell’s with you these days, Joey?”
“It’s nothing,” I said, but he kept staring. I knew I was done putting off this conversation. “It’s Aiden. He’s thinking of leaving.”
I didn’t bother saying where. In our world there was only one place else to go. He also knew that Aiden was my best friend and that this meant I’d be considering going with him, so for a while he said nothing.
“I lost your mother to that place. I won’t lose you too!” he said, finally. “Two kids I raised on punk and not one of you got any of it through your skulls!”
“Punk is dead, John! It went down with the old world!” I yelled, immediately regretting it when I saw his face. But I’d crossed the line. I couldn’t back down now. “Soon you’ll be too. You want me to make my own choices so bad, well I’m making them. I’m making this one. I’m sick of living like the roach that survived Armageddon. I want a real life. I want to know the kind of world you had when you were my age! You at least have your memories, all I have is this bullshit! Nothing but scrounging through garbage just to live another day. Every fucking day for years! I’m done with this shit and I dare you to try and stop me!”
I was surprised by my own anger. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in so much rage and frustration. I hadn’t realized I’d made up my mind about going to The City and joining the A.I. But I felt strangely free too. Lighter.
“I won’t stop you,” he said. “I didn’t try to stop your mother; why would I stop you? But I’m glad Rebel isn’t here to see any of this. I failed her. I failed her so bad.”
He got quiet then and turned The Clash back up, but in the light of the fire I could see the glistening of tears in his eyes. After a while he headed for his stash and came back with a bottle of home brew. I’d never had it because it smelled like death and I imagined it tasted worse since John only brought it out during his toughest times.
I packed some of my shit up then and told him I was heading to Aiden’s again. He didn’t reply, but as I walked away I could swear that through the sound of The Clash I heard him say: “Punk’s not dead.”
Aiden and I planned to leave the next morning, but I woke up feeling bad for the old man and sorry about the things I’d said—or at least the way I’d said them. I went back to the trailer, but he was already gone. No doubt doing his rounds, checking on the people we knew as our family. Even a night of drinking that toxic witch’s brew wasn’t enough to keep ol’ Johnny down.
“Hangovers are for the weak,” he’d say.
The Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette was on the turntable now, but the needle was off. The battery had died at some point during the night, so I set it to charge again, knowing the old man would need his music to get him through my leaving. Then I packed the rest of my stuff and a while later, Aiden showed up to get me.
I shrugged. “John’s still gone.”
“So? Leave him a note.”
“I can’t just go. I need to at least tell him to his face. I need him to know I’m making this decision for myself and that I’ve thought it through. I can’t leave things the way they were last night.”
Aiden nodded. “I get it. Look, I’ll wait for you by the old highway on-ramp. I’ll wait ’til noon. When the sun hits peak though, I’m gonna start walking with or without you.”
“I’ll be there, brother.”
With that I started making John’s rounds, asking people if they’d seen him. In a way it felt like I was saying goodbye to them at the same time. I realized I was gonna miss these people, that they’d each become a part of me in some way.
When I couldn’t find John, I’ll admit, I started to worry. John was tough as hell, but he was still an old man. Old as fuck. He shouldn’t be out scavenging without me. The people in this area were alright, but there were always outsiders, and a pack of coyotes could do some damage if given the opportunity.
But I was also worried time was running out for me as the sun moved higher in the sky. Still, I told myself I knew the way to The City and I could always catch up to Aiden.
It had to be around eleven when I finally found John near the old town dump. He was sitting on an overturned metal trash bin, all scuffed and dented on one side. Clearly out of breath, he held the edge of his open jacket like a lifeline. He looked up at me then and I saw all the years he’d been alive suddenly weighing heavy on him. Like he’d carried them for so long, but just couldn’t go on anymore.
Some people age gradually, and when they reach their end it seems inevitable. You have a long time to see it coming. But some people stay young inside, and though their bodies grow older you don’t quite believe that the years have had any lasting effect, until one day they’re just done, and you’re not prepared for it. It was like that with John. The realization that his end had come hit me with the force of an earthquake.
“Jesus, John! I’ve been lookin’ all over for you!”
“Just a bit…out of breath,” he said. Though I could tell it was more than that.
“Is it your heart?”
He didn’t answer, but I knew the signs. We’d been playing nurse to the people around us my whole life, doing the work Rebel had started. I pressed my ear to his chest, moving the leather jacket out of my way. I stared at the safety pins Rebel had adorned it with so many years ago as I listened to the sounds of a heart that had faced its share of struggles in this life, but that was now well and truly on its way to breaking.
“Joey,” he said. “There’s something…I need to say.”
I tried to argue but he shut me down with a wave and I knew that whatever it was, it was more important to him than what was going on inside his chest.
“For fuck’s sake, I don’t have much time! Your grandmother…she didn’t die. She was sick. Her mind was. She was starting to forget things. I was selfish. I betrayed her.”
“What do you mean? What happened to Rebel?”
“I couldn’t handle her forgetting. Forgetting us. Forgetting all she was. I begged her to go…to The City, to save what was left in the mainframe. She refused. She wouldn’t do it.”
“You took her anyway,” I said.
He nodded and looked away. I’d never seen him so ashamed.
“I put aside everything she taught me. I ignored all she stood for…all she was…because I didn’t want to lose her. But I lost her anyway. I waited ’til she was in one of her states…then took her. They said she’d be happy.”
I thought about my mother. Had these two women, mother and daughter, found each other in that place? Were they together now?
“It’s supposed to be a good place,” I said. “A paradise.”
He shook his head.
“Those people aren’t free. Not really alive. I didn’t save her. I trapped her.”
And suddenly I understood why he’d tried so hard to teach me all the things she’d taught him; why he’d taken on the care of our friends and neighbors, as she’d done. He was atoning. All those years I’d thought he just missed her; it had been so much more than that. In a moment of weakness, he’d failed her. He’d gone against her wishes and taken her to The City to try to save what was left of her. But it hadn’t worked.
“You saw her again, didn’t you?” I said. “After you gave her to them.”
“Not her. Someone else. A man I’d never seen before. A stranger. Her body was too old, damaged. The A.I. discarded it like so much garbage. Figured it’d make no difference to have her speak to me…through someone else. This stranger spoke like he knew me; called me ‘Johnny.’ He talked about old times. How we met and even about the punk bands she’d loved. But there was no emotion. It was like an actor, saying lines written by someone else. I realized despite my efforts I’d lost her.”
I didn’t know what to say. I replayed all the things he’d said to me over the years, hearing his words and understanding their meaning in new ways. Rebel believed punk was about freedom and thinking for yourself, and he’d taken both those things from her.
He winced and squeezed my hand. He loosened it a bit then spasmed, and finally gasped, opening his eyes wide before his heart finally gave out for good. There was nothing I could do. In The City, they have medical alternatives for bodies that aren’t beyond saving, but even if he’d still been young enough for the A.I. to think worth keeping, we were too far to even try to get him there. All I could do was watch him go.
The sun was now high in the sky and I knew Aiden would be starting his hike to The City, but none of that mattered. I held my grandfather like a child, leaning his body against my chest while I supported myself against the beaten-up trash can. I don’t know how much time passed before Old Man Lincoln showed up. When he saw what had happened, he helped me carry John back to the trailer. He gathered some of the others and they cleaned him up and got him ready for burial.
We had his funeral the next morning. Things like this went quickly in our world. Old Man Lincoln draped John’s leather jacket over my shoulders. And just like that I was rotten, too.
“Guess you’ll be moving on now,” Old Man Lincoln said, as a few of the men began shoveling dirt back into the grave.
“He told you?”
“Aiden did. Came over to say goodbye yesterday morning.”
I thought about Aiden. He must’ve reached The City by now. Was maybe already part of the collective.
“Nah,” I said, sticking my arms fully into the sleeves of John’s old jacket. “Who’s gonna find you all those old records you like so much if I go?”
He laughed. “And someone has to keep those punk ones. Lord knows I never understood your grandpa’s taste in music.”
“Punk isn’t just about the music,” I said. “It’s a way of life. It’s about waking up to the truth. Your truth. And living it no matter what anyone else thinks.”
“You even sound like the old man. Must be that jacket.”
I smiled and headed over to the grave to help shovel. John was gone. Rebel, the ultimate punk, gone before him, or maybe somewhere alive in the collective, hopefully teaching that A.I. something about punk. Maybe there was hope yet.
With them gone, someone had to stay to do the rounds. Someone had to make sure the people here stayed alive and remained free. Someone had to spread the gospel of punk.
“You were right,” I said to John’s body, slowly being buried at my feet. “Punk’s not dead. Not as long as I’m still here.”
© 2022 P.A. Cornell