BY CAMERON DEORDIO
“I love you.”
At the auctioneer’s words, the room burst into commotion, and at least one representative dropped the device he’d been using to place his company’s bids.
“Before we begin, allow me to clarify,” the auctioneer continued, as he had with each of the day’s items. “This lot includes all iterations, sincere, sarcastic, ironic or otherwise, of ‘I love you.’ You may set the licensing fee as you see fit, pursuant to the guidelines agreed upon at the beginning of this auction.” As he went on, though, his voice rose, losing the flat tone of rote speech. “However, unique to this offering is the following stipulation: Alternate tenses and moods, such as ‘I loved you,’ ‘I wish I loved you,’ ‘I might have loved you’ and so on, are to be sold separately.”
There was a murmur of dissent in the room.
“Let’s start the bidding at ten million. Do I hear ten million?”
The auctioneer’s table display glowed brightly across what must have been several hundred individual points of light, each representing its own bid. One name flashed at the top, indicating the company who had submitted first.
“Do I hear eleven?”
Breadloaf Khmer, born Eli Brier, watched the auctions from his Serramonte apartment, having long since been priced out of the San Francisco whose punk scene had helped lift him to international renown, both as a musician and a political malcontent. He swiped his hand over the phone on his coffee table and manually selected Jack Cody’s name from the list of contacts the device projected in front of him. Voice search would have been faster and easier, but Breadloaf liked scrolling through. It reminded him of all the connections he’d made over the years, a list whose length had only grown more important to him as he spent more and more of his post-touring years – of which there were now many – alone. It felt good to remember there were people out there whose lives he’d touched and who had touched him in return.
Jack picked up after one ring.
“Are you watching this shit?” Breadloaf asked.
“You know, before Caller ID was a thing, that would have been considered a pretty rude way to start a phone call.”
“‘Caller ID’? What are you, 80?”
“72, thank you very much,” Jack said.
“You’ll have to excuse my poor manners, Grandpa. I’ve forgotten them in my old age.”
“As if you ever had any.”
“I was a delightful kindergartener, I’ve heard.” Breadloaf leaned back across the couch, trusting the phone to adjust so Jack could still hear him. “But seriously, are you watching this shit?”
“Of course I am,” Jack said. “Not sure why, though. Just to be angry, I guess.”
Breadloaf hesitated. Or, he thought he hesitated. Patience was never his strong suit, but this felt like an appropriate amount of hesitation. “Well, I’m not just calling you to chitchat while it’s still free. I say we go out there and start playing again.”
This was greeted with silence. One second passed, then another.
Breadloaf coughed loudly, partially to prompt Jack to speak, but mostly because, as he liked to put it, his lungs had passed their Best By date a couple decades back.
“I know your brain’s not what it used to be,” Jack began.
“Never was much,” Breadloaf offered.
“But you may remember just a second ago we were saying we’re in our 70s. We’re the old pricks we used to scream about.”
Breadloaf stood and began to pace. He always liked to move when he spoke, and the urge was especially strong when he was trying to make a point. He still moved pretty well, he noticed, and regretted not having made a vidcall instead to show just that. “I screamed. You played guitar. But that’s not the point. Big Brother’s here. Everything’s gone to hell. The corporations – ”
“I told you I was watching. Even if we could get Dellis in, even if we could find a venue that would take us, the label owns all our songs, and we don’t have a bassist, to boot. We’ve got nothing.”
There was a pause.
Breadloaf cocked his head. If they had been on a vidcall, Jack would have recognized the look in his eye as the exact same one he’d had before tossing a brick at a cop car in Milwaukee in ’85. “I’ve got an idea.” He’d also said that before throwing the brick, a connection Jack did not make in the moment. “Just meet me at the bank on San Mateo two weeks from Monday at 8. I’ll take care of the rest.” Breadloaf ended the call before Jack could protest.
Jack swiped at his smartwatch, typing quickly, thankful for whatever it was that had kept his fingers free from arthritis all these years.
“PURCHASE CONFIRMED: $0.0032,” the display’s bright green letters read.
“Could you pass the butter, please?” he asked.
His watch face glowed red. “UNLICENSED WORD: PLEASE.” That disappeared, replaced by “COST: $0.0090. THANK YOU.”
Jack grunted his disapproval, then nodded in the direction of the butter. His grandson, Mark, who was 16 now and growing fast, passed Jack the dish. Jack wordlessly applied butter to both sides of his bread.
The boy’s father tapped at his own watch. It glowed green. “How was school today, Mark?”
Mark grunted noncommittally. It was hard for Jack to tell if this was simple teenage standoffishness or an attempt to keep the boy’s personal deficit down. He was, by all accounts, a bright young man, which meant an expensive school was likely in his future.
“Any word from the PTP folks?” Jack asked, after keying in a purchase. Recently, Mark had started courting potential Path to Profession sponsors, hoping to lessen the cost of school and also improve his chances at securing a steady job after graduation. Having spent his whole life watching his father string together Pay Grade 4 and 5 tasks to put food on the table as he struggled to shake his family’s anti-corporate reputation, Mark perhaps understood the importance of getting in with PTP better than anyone. Jack wondered if his grandson hated him for that.
Mark shrugged and carefully avoided eye contact.
His father swiped at his watch, then spoke. “Answer your grandfather, Mark.”
The boy glanced sullenly at his father without raising his head.
“Well! I kind of like the new way,” Mark’s mother said, her wrist glowing green. “Certainly makes getting some peace and quiet a little easier.”
Mark’s father forced a laugh. Mark poked at his potatoes, of which he’d eaten none. Jack’s watch lit up again.
“NEW MESSAGE: BREADLOAF.”
Jack tapped the watch face. Breadloaf’s text fit easily on the device’s display: “Remember. Monday 8. Bring guitar, running shoes.”
Jack looked at Mark, whose fork had moved on to pushing his peas around, his face a mask of discontent. Jack tapped out: “See you there.”
Monday afternoon, Jack returned from his pre-show shave-and-shower to see he’d missed 14 calls and 29 text messages. He scrolled past the numbers he didn’t recognize to the only one that was already in his contacts list: Breadloaf, who’d sent a text.
“You can’t bail now.”
The most recent vidmail in Jack’s inbox made it clear just what Breadloaf had done.
When Jack opened it, he was greeted by the nearly forgotten face of a zine writer he’d once been close with, the woman’s long, messy hair no less wild now that it was long past gray and had settled well into white.
“Call me!” she shouted before swiveling her phone to record a flyer on her kitchen table, set among empty soup cans and dirty dishes. “Found this on San Mateo Ave! What’s going on?” She let the image linger on the piece of paper.
The yellow flyer’s blocky black text opened with an enormous command to “BE HERE,” followed by their old band logo reproduced in monochrome. Under that, only slightly smaller: “The Ruling Crass Reunion Concert.* ONE NIGHT ONLY (THIS ONE).” At the very bottom of the page, in smaller lettering, was the disclaimer “*Playing none of their hits, because fascists stole them.”
He texted Breadloaf. “Well played.” Then: “You got Dellis?”
His phone lit up. “We’ll see you at 8.”
When Jack emerged from the roof access door, he wasn’t sure what he was expecting to see. What he saw, though, was Dellis, whom he hadn’t spoken to in more than forty years, sitting behind his drum kit.
Jack tapped at his watch – “PURCHASE CONFIRMED: $0.0004” – and asked, “How?”
Dellis deftly moved his thumb from key to key on his phone’s screen. “Well-raised grandkids who can handle this place’s whopping two flights of stairs,” he said once he’d finished his transaction.
“Ready, boys?” Breadloaf asked, grinning. His watch flared red with a pair of UNAUTHORIZED WORD alerts. He seemed not to notice.
“No,” Jack bought. “But what’s it matter?”
“That’s the spirit!” Breadloaf’s wrist glowed red again. “Let’s greet our public.” He stepped to the front of the roof, and Jack followed.
There were maybe a hundred people standing in the street, looking up at them. Some of them were screaming. Others were jumping up and down. All of them were blocking traffic.
Jack keyed words into his watch. “Do we have a permit?”
“Have we met?” Breadloaf shouted over the crowd. “Hell no, we don’t have a permit.”
Jack frowned, but he began to set up, anyway. After a green glow from his wrist, he asked, “Where can I plug in?”
“Got a present for you,” Breadloaf said, stepping closer and producing what looked like the middle third of a large plastic cup with a metal switch grafted onto it. “DIY amp.”
Jack’s attention flicked to the account balance on his wrist, and he nodded, not wanting to waste his words questioning the frontman.
Dellis selected an inexpensive one-word question: “Plan?”
Breadloaf turned to face his bandmates. “Leave that to me. You guys play ‘C.N.T. Eastwood’ when I kick things off, and I’ll handle the rest.”
“Without bass?” Dellis asked.
“Unless one of you plans on teaching me in the next five minutes.” Breadloaf returned to the front edge of the roof. “Hello!” he shouted to the crowd, eliciting a cheer followed by a very rough approximation of quiet. “As you may know,” he continued, his watch glowing red with every word, “our government recently sold off pretty much anything you or I could say! How’s that for free speech?” A chorus of boos. “Now, now, that’s just the way of intellectual property.” He grinned in a way that seemed more designed to bare his teeth than to express good humor. His tone sharpened to match. “Someone has to protect these poor corporations’ rights.” More boos. “But it sure as hell isn’t gonna be me!” The boos quickly turned to cheers, and fans’ efforts to shove past one another to get a closer look at the aging idol seemed to rise with the mood. “Now, everybody, let’s turn to page twenty-three in our Great American Songbooks and sing a little something from what the lawyers I don’t actually have tell me is called ‘the public domain’!”
Jack excitedly keyed a question into his watch. “Is that an actual loophole?” he asked.
Breadloaf raised his fist and looked back at the band. Once they had all shared a nod, Breadloaf dropped his hand, Dellis counted them in, and the song began.
Jack was a bit rusty, but C.N.T. Eastwood had one of their simpler chord progressions, so, he thought, he was doing fine. Breadloaf was running back and forth and spinning around like a madman, getting himself, and the crowd, riled up.
All at once, Breadloaf stopped spinning, leaned out past the edge of the roof, and raised his fist again, now pointing to the bank’s flag, emblazoned with its red, white and blue corporate logo, directly over his head. Breadloaf’s words came fast, keeping pace with the song Maximumrocknroll had, in 1984, called a “vicious, frenetic attack on America’s worship of lone heroes.” Tilting his head back to address the bank’s flag directly, he sang, “You’re a GRAND old flag, you’re a high-flying flag!”
Breadloaf tore through the first verse, running from side to side on the roof’s edge, stopping at points to jab a middle finger toward the bank flag or lean out over the crowd, arms extended, letting his manic energy weaponize the patriotic anthem.
Jack’s fingers found the familiar frets easily, his pick flashing back and forth, perhaps too fast without Perido’s bass to ground him, but still with the exact energy he knew Breadloaf needed. He played fast, wondering if someone was recording, or if bank security had the forethought to disable third-party video. Jack hoped someone was taping, though. He wanted Mark to see this, to understand.
Jack didn’t hear the boots pounding up the stairs, or across the roof. He only knew a Community Enrichment Tactical Team had arrived when one of its members tackled him from behind, causing him to land painfully on his guitar, knocking the wind out of him and crushing Breadloaf’s homemade amp. Strong, gloved hands reached past his head and pinned his wrists. One of the officer’s fingers tapped a quick rhythm, and he saw the large, wide screen on the officer’s forearm flash, “PURCHASE CONFIRMED: $0.0032. BULK DISCOUNT ACCEPTED.”
“Stop resisting, sir!” the officer barked in Jack’s ear, driving his knee into the older man’s groin from behind. Jack exhaled sharply and attempted to curl into himself, but the movement was stopped by the CETT officer pressing down on Jack’s back with his chest. He gripped both of Jack’s thin wrists in one hand, freeing the other to grind the old man’s face against the hard, rough surface of the roof. His cheek began to bleed.
“Stop resisting, sir!” he heard again, from farther off this time. Breadloaf was being dragged away from the edge of the roof.
“And forever in PEACE may you wave!” Breadloaf was shouting, trying to pull free from the CETT men even as one wrapped a forearm around his throat in an attempt to stop his singing.
“Stop resisting, sir!” one of the officers on Breadloaf shouted.
“You’re the emblem of – !” Breadloaf was cut off as the CETT officers finally managed to pull him to the ground. CETT’s nightsticks came out then, and Jack flinched sympathetically.
Somewhere, Dellis’s cymbals crashed as he, too, was subdued.
“Stop resisting, sir!” the officers pinning Breadloaf and Dellis said in unison.
The heavy, blunt blows began raining down. The nightsticks rose; “Stop resisting, sir!”; the nightsticks fell; THWAP; repeat. When the first blow fell, it immediately reminded Jack of the time Perido, in an attempt to smash his bass on the stage in Berlin, had instead slammed the head of the instrument into the nerve-dense area between Jack’s neck and shoulder. He hadn’t been able to feel his right arm for hours, and he’d been afraid he’d have to give up guitar for good. It’s a miracle he hadn’t killed the bassist then and there.
On the roof, Jack heard a crack he thought was the sound of his shoulder breaking. He wondered if this meant Mark wouldn’t get his sponsorship.
The anchorwoman’s fingers flitted across the keypad set into the newsdesk. “PURCHASE CONFIRMED: $0.0042. EMPLOYEE DISCOUNT ACCEPTED.” She looked into the camera grimly. “Sad news today as reports are coming in that counterculture icon and free speech activist Eli Brier, known to much of the world as Breadloaf Khmer, was found dead in his Serramonte apartment, the same day that lifelong friends and former bandmates Jack Cody and Lawrence Dellis were found dead in their Oakland homes. All three men reportedly appear to have passed peacefully in their sleep.”
As she spoke, the woman’s co-anchor typed in a purchase of his own. “You know,” he said, “it’s sad to hear these legends have passed, but in a way, it’s sweet. After singing and shouting for so long about being individuals, when it was time for them to pass, they ended up going quietly, together. They just couldn’t resist.”
Mark watched the report from his room, having been sent up without dinner yet again for refusing to “engage in Family Time.” He swiped his finger across his watch face, calling up his grandfather’s last message to him: “I’m doing this because I want you to have a better future. That’s what this has always been about. I love you.”
Mark’s face felt hot and swollen and wet, like he’d been crying for a while, but he didn’t remember starting.
“I love you,” he said.
The watch glowed red for just an instant before it shattered on the corner of Mark’s desk. Pain vibrated through his wrist, but he couldn’t honestly regret smashing the thing. It sloughed off him, revealing the pale, pruny skin underneath. The remains of the watch fell to the ground.
“I love you,” he said again. And nothing glowed.
Cameron DeOrdio lives in Astoria, Queens. He writes comic books and short prose stories, along with copy for business-to-business technology clients. His work has appeared in The Rampallian and V23 Magazine, among others. His comics credits include Archie Comics' Josie and the Pussycats. He received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, where he studied comic scripting alongside fiction writing.