“Softboy Ray,” by Ben Fitts

Apr 20th, 2019 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

A punk with a safety through his nose shoved his way to the front of the crowd, snatched Gilbert’s mandolin from his fingers and snapped it over his knee. The rest of us stopped short in the middle of the song we were playing and gaped, the open strings of my Rickenbacker still ringing out.

The punk tossed the remaining halves of the mandolin at Gilbert’s feet. Gilbert looked down at the remains of his brand new instrument, his lip trembling as tears swelled behind his thick glasses.

“You guys suck,” sneered the punk. The rest of the crowd laughed, seeming to agree with him. “Get out of here with that Neutral Milk Hotel wannabe shit.”

“Hey man, some of us like that stuff,” said Dylan from behind his accordion. Some chick with purple hair beamed him in the face with a half-empty can of PBR. The can thunked against his forehead and the cheap beer spilled over the bellows of the accordion.

“Shit, shit, shit!” Dylan shouted as tried to dry the instrument with the sleeve of his sweater. The crowd howled.

I unplugged my Rickenbacker and stuffed it into its case before anyone could do anything to damage it too. I unplugged my little Fender amp too and hoisted it in one hand, the guitar case in the other, and led my bandmates off the Vegan Slaughterhouse’s little stage. They trailed behind me, Gilbert with his shattered mandolin and Dylan with his soggy accordion. Gilbert had had high hopes

Everyone cheered as we left the stage. A guy with a pompadour and a Cramps t-shirt spat a loogie at Gilbert. In splat squarely on the left lens of his glasses. Gilbert grimaced, but just kept scurrying towards the door. 

“Get a goddamn drummer!” the guy with the pompadour shouted after us as we exited the local venue and bar.

A heavy silence hung over the three of us as we filed into Dylan’s Prius after loading what remained of our gear into the trunk. We sat there for a while, but eventually Gilbert broke the silence.

“I thought this gig would be different, but that same exact thing happens every single time we play. That’s like the fifth mandolin I’ve had to buy this month.”

I shrugged. “I think we’ve had worse luck at some of our other shows. We finished two whole songs and nearly got through a third before they broke our stuff.”

“That did go way better than last time,” Dylan added from the driver’s seat.

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing right now. Are you guys really just accepting this? Things should be better than this!” he exclaimed while wiping the loogie off his glasses with the pages of a Scott Pilgrim graphic novel he found laying on the backseat.

“Gross, dude! Don’t do that!” chided Dylan.

“I have some psychobilly dude’s spit on my face. You can get some on your comic.”

Dylan grumbled, but dropped the issue and started the car. The Fruit Bats song “From A Soon-to-Be Ghost Town” sprung to life from the car stereo and he backed out of the venue, turned onto the road and left the Vegan Slaughterhouse behind us. I caught Gilbert staring at the venue forlornly at the venue as it melted away into the distance.

“The scene out here is so punk. It would be like a wet dream for those kids in my high school who would pass joints in the parking lot instead of going to math class, but there’s no room for us out here. There aren’t any other softboys,” he whined.

“You’re just realizing that now?”

“I said I thought this place would be different!” Gilbert exclaimed. “It had Vegan in the goddamn name, with an ironic usage and everything. You think they’d be about an indie folk band like us there.”

“A lot of punks are vegan too,” Dylan pointed out.

“Well, obviously it didn’t work out! I just so sick of this bullshit.”

“You’re thinking of giving up the band? Make this the end of Swamp Puppet?” I asked. I honestly wasn’t opposed to that idea. Like I said, that had been our best show so far. That was a pretty disheartening thought.

Gilbert shook his head. “I’m not going to let those meatheads win. Being in Swamp Puppet is my first chance at being cool. They’re not going to just take that away from me.”

I snorted to hear him call that assorted group of misfits and outcasts meatheads, but to Gilbert they probably were. Kids like that may have spent high school being terrorized by the jocks and good old boys who would grow up to become mechanics and cops, but in turn those kids spent that time terrorizing science dorks like Gilbert. There was a pecking order in life and Gilbert was at the dead bottom of it, even if we were all adults now.

“So what are you going to do about it?” I asked him.

Gilbert just stared out the window at the downtown rolling away in the night. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “But I’ll think of something.”

I didn’t think he really would, which is why I was surprised when he texted me a few days later to tell me that he had already booked us another gig.

I paused the sitcom I was streaming and called him from my living room couch.

“What’s up, dude? Did you see my text about the show?”

“Yeah, that’s why I’m calling.”

“Aw shit, can you not make it?”

“No, I’m free that Saturday. It’s not that,” I answered, surprised that that’s where his mind went. I’m free most Saturdays, something I thought Gilbert knew about me. “It’s just that I’m not sure this is such a great idea.”

“No, no, it is. I’m working on something. It’s going to change everything.”

I sighed. “Gilbert, the people here don’t like our kind of music. It doesn’t matter how well he play it, there’s no scene for us out here. I thought you finally realized that at the Vegan Slaughterhouse.”

“Yeah I did. That’s why I said I’m working on something during my free time at the lab. The people here are finally going to dig what we do.”

“What, are you writing songs that are punkier? I guess if we did a Billy Bragg thing, people might like it.”

Gilbert snorted. “Fuck, no. I’m not going to sell out and play the kind of music people want to here. You’ll see what I’m talking about at the show.”

“You don’t want to rehearse it first?”

“No need,” he said and hung up.

I didn’t see Gilbert again until the night of the show, a couple of weeks later. We texted every now and then during that time, but we didn’t hangout or have band practice once. Gilbert just kept replying that he was too busy working at the lab.

Dylan and I drove together to the gig, this one a house show. Usually we all went and left together as a group, but Gilbert said he was coming straight from work and would meet us there.

“I’m not the only one who thinks Gilbert’s been kinda weird recently, right?” I asked Dylan on the drive over, lowering the volume on his car stereo to be heard over an Elliott Smith song.

“You mean weirder than normal? Yeah, I guess. I kinda thought the show at the Vegan Slaughterhouse would be our last. You know, go out on a high note. Or at least a high note for us. But then he went and booked this other show at the Capriporn House? That’s like the most hardcore house venue in town.”

“Yeah that was weird, but that’s not really what I was talking about,” I said as we approached the house. “I mean like how come we haven’t seen him for two weeks or practiced even once? I know he works hard sometimes, but never that hard.”

Dylan shrugged and pulled into the empty parking spot outside the Capriporn House. We were running a little late and parked cars littered block. Punks in patch jackets and combat boots milled about on the porch and sneered at us as we passed them with our equipment. We clearly did not belong at a show like this.

“Oh fuck, are you guys playing this show? I hoping to mosh tonight,” one of the punks said as we walked through the open front door.

“I’m sure we’re not the only band tonight,” I called behind me apologetically.

“There you guys are!” shouted Gilbert as he saw us enter. “We’re about to go on.”

He was against the far wall of the house’s disheveled living room in a spot cleared away for the bands to play. He was tuning a brand new mandolin in front of a drum kit that must have belonged to one of the other bands. As he tuned, he kept glancing at a bulky object beside him obscured by a white sheet.

I mumbled an apology and edged my way through the crowd of scary looking crusties who frequent the Capriporn House and set my amplifier down beside Gilbert in the cramped performance space. I plugged it in and tuned my Rickenbacker as Dylan got his accordion out.

“You guys ready?” Gilbert asked a minute. Without even waiting for a response, he began strumming the opening chords to our song that we open all of our sets with, “Just Because I Like Science Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Have Feelings”.

Dylan and I scrambled to get ready for the moment in the ninth measure when we came in with our parts, but we didn’t even get that far before some guy with a shaved head and the Discharge logo tattooed across his forehead shouted, “This sucks!”

Gilbert kept strumming until we came in with our parts. Then he let go of his mandolin and let it hang off his chest by its strap. He jerked the white sheet off the object bulky beside him, revealing a very strange contraption. Both Dylan and I stopped playing to gawk at it.

It looked some sort of small stationary cannon made of aluminum, except with several Tesla coils poking out of it.

“I didn’t tell you to stop!” Gilbert barked at us. Dylan and I began to awkwardly resume playing the song, although without its previous energy.

“Did you bring in a little invention for show and tell, nerd?” taunted the guy with the Discharge tattoo on his face. Gilbert just laughed at him.

“This is my softboy ray!” he declared. “It turns punks like you into softboys; you’ll appreciate my music!”

“That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard,” said the punk.

Gilbert yanked a lever on the side of the machine and it hummed the life as electricity sparked on the Tesla coils. A blue bolt of light zapped out of the machine and struck him right in his Discharge face tattoo.

The man shook as the electricity coursed through his body. As he convulsed, the tattoo vanished a large pair of square glasses materialized on his face. His ratty old Doc Marten boots transformed into a pair of crisp white Chuck Taylors and his sleeveless patch jacket was replaced by a pastel blue hand-knitted sweater.

Gilbert resumed strumming his mandolin along with me and Dylan and the former punk nodded along with the song.

“I rather like this,” the former punk said, introspectively. “I especially appreciate the unusual instrumentation and the lyrics about all the feelings you have.” He withdrew a small Moleskine journal and a fountain pen from his back pocket and wandered off to go journal about it.

“What just happened?” I asked to no one in particular. Gilbert turned to me and smiled.

“I told you I’d come up with something. Now keep playing.”

Still somewhat dazed, Dylan and I obeyed and continued our way through “Just Because I Like Science Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Have Feelings.”

“What did you do to my boyfriend!” screamed a young woman in front row. I recognized her as the purple-haired chick who chucked a can of beer in Dylan’s face at our last show.

“I turned him into a softboy with my ray that turns punks into softboys, so he’d like my music,” answered Gilbert calmly. “I thought that was pretty clear by now.”

“What!” she shrieked. “First you come here and ruin our punk show with your shitty music and then you turn my awesome boyfriend into a whiny little pussy like you? What the hell, dude!”

“I think you need a change in attitude,” said Gilbert, letting go of his mandolin. He rotated the barrel of the softboy ray over to her and pulled the lever. Again the machine hummed, sparked and zapped.

A blue streak of light struck her square on the chest. A big wool beanie materialized on her head, but that was nothing compared to the foot long bushy beard that sprouted out of her face.  

“I love the strains of Americana in your sound,” said the former punk and former woman. “It makes me contemplate my own American identity.”

“Huh, I guess it can change gender too,” said Gilbert. “Whaddya know?”

Then he started open firing into the crowd.

The softboy ray zapped and zapped and zapped, each bolt of light striking a different punk and transforming them into a generic softboy. Dylan and I continued playing our usual set while all this happened, including such Gilbert penned originals as “I May Love Science But I Also Love You (If Only I Could Work Up The Nerve To Tell You),” “If Only I Could Invent A Machine That Would Make Me Less Sad,” and “I Don’t Only Crush On Molecules, I Also Crush On You.” As a songwriter, Gilbert relied heavily on several recurring themes.

By the time we strummed the final chord on our closing song “I Thought Learning Science Would Make Me Cool, But Now I Know I’m Cool Because I Started An Indie Folk Band,” every punk our small town’s DIY music scene had become nothing but indie folk-loving softboys. And more than that, they loved us.

They cheered heartily for several minutes after we finished. Some of them even began wandering through the crowd in search of women to whom they explain why our music was so deep, which is a thing softboys do when they really like something. However all of the women who had been at the show and had not managed to escape had been transformed into softboys as well, so the searches were all eventually abandoned.

After several of the softboys slapped us on the back to tell us how great our set was and ask what are opinions on Charles Bukowski were, we packed up our gear and loaded it to the back Dylan’s Prius like we always do. It was a great feeling to put away instruments that were all still as unbroken as when we arrived.

It felt a bit weirder to move aside my amplifier to make room for the softboy ray, but I shoved the feeling away.

“So what’s next?” I asked after we all climbed into the car. “We’re in a popular local band now, I think.”

“Well, think bigger,” said Gilbert. He smiled darkly from the passenger seat. “Sorry I didn’t give you guys a heads up first, but I wanted to see how tonight went first. I booked us a tour at punkhouses across the country. Soon, we’ll be popular touring band.”  

They tell you not argue with success, so I didn’t.


Ben Fitts is a writer, musician and zinester from New York. He is the author of over twenty published short stories and his work has been featured in Weird Mask, Futuristic Fiction, Horror Trash Sleaze, and other publications. He is the creator of the zines The Rock N’ Roll Horror Zine, A Beginner’s Guide To Bizarro Fiction, and Choose Your Own Death

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