by Brian Beatty   July 7, 2010

A new short story by one of our veteran mnLIT winners, Brian Beatty -- a bitingly funny tale about the misadventures of a group of bandmates chasing communal bliss and musical breakthroughs in the woods Up North.
Eddie Hamilton, "The danger of, the patience of," 48" x 54"
Eddie Hamilton, "The danger of, the patience of," 48" x 54"
See more of Hamilton's work at www.painteddiepaint.com (Courtesy of the artist)
Eddie Hamilton, "Drawing A Crowd Together," 48" x 60"
Eddie Hamilton, "Drawing A Crowd Together," 48" x 60"
See more of Hamilton's work at www.painteddiepaint.com (Courtesy of the artist)
 Eddie Hamilton, "Angrily arguing about authority," 24" x 24"
Eddie Hamilton, "Angrily arguing about authority," 24" x 24"
See more of Hamilton's work at www.painteddiepaint.com (Courtesy of the artist)
 Eddie Hamilton, "If you do that then I'll do this," 48" x 56"
Eddie Hamilton, "If you do that then I'll do this," 48" x 56"
Courtesy of the artist
Eddie Hamilton, "Debate about who's better"
Eddie Hamilton, "Debate about who's better"
Courtesy of the artist

MILK SOURS AND MAKES YOU SICK. Honey crystallizes and shatters your sweet tooth when you least expect it. Our idealistic dreams were eventually (and quite effectively) dashed, too, but before that happened we got by for nearly a week on nothing more than music, marijuana and some basic survival skills we'd seen demonstrated on cable TV.

Even if we never speak to each other again, we'll always have our memories of those songs we penned in the woods. They were real musical breakthroughs for our band -- especially "My Leg Itches" and "Shitting in a Hole." And I don't care if I'm in the minority, I believe that "Bears Aren't Just Big Dogs After All" is the radio-friendliest utopian sing-along ever set to the key of G by five people stranded up trees.

****

The plan was to get in touch with our roots, then land a six-and-a-half figure deal, while there were still big-time record labels around to write checks to musical geniuses. Unfortunately, every root we dug up withered and died beneath metro area sod. Nothing reached beyond the outermost ring of suburbs.

So, we blindfolded our drummer, Jake, spun him around and gave him a paper donkey tail to pin to a crumbling roadmap we'd picked up last time we'd hit the Goodwill for vintage novelty t-shirts. That's how everybody wound up hating each other's guts. It began with four of us hating Jake for not pinning someplace awesome for us to go discover ourselves -- or at least someplace ironic.

****

We weren't idiots. We understood there wouldn't be electricity in the wilderness. Tron and Mr. Giggles pawned their practice amplifiers to buy hardcore acoustic axes. Amy's parents bought her one of those jazz instruments that looks like a violin on steroids. Jake learned some snare rolls because it's not practical to backpack in an entire drum set.

I traded a hard-drive of loops and samples for a second-hand banjo. Three guitarists are too many for any band. And I assumed five strings had to be easier to figure out than six.

It was obvious the others didn't trust me after the banjo. They made me promise I wouldn't make them play bluegrass. Joke renditions of '80s hair metal power ballads weren't beneath them somehow, but timeless classics about gambling and/or murder and/or dealing with the Devil? Not "badass" and/or "emo" enough for some of my bandmates.

****

What nobody ever tells you about Duluth is how remote and frightening it is. Especially outside the city limits, far from the lights of Pizza Luce and the Electric Fetus.

That hike-in campsite at Jay Cooke State Park was the weirdest, wildest place any of us had ever seen. Our iPhones were worthless out there.

****

We spent most of our first day arguing about how to scavenge for and build our new living quarters. Not all fallen limbs and loose underbrush are created equal when it comes to offering shelter from the elements. Our so-called experts couldn't agree what was best. The hosts of the various survival shows that Tron and Mr. Giggles watched each recommended different materials for staying warm and safe outdoors. 

"I believe I suggested tents," Amy reminded us. "But you were all too macho to bunk together and five tents aren't allowed in one campsite. Whatever we do with this shit we've gathered up, I'm not having sex with any of you. My sleeping bag is so off limits. Don't even think about it. I brought this knife to help you keep your skinny jeans zipped."

But only I even noticed Amy's little outburst. Jake was twirling his drumsticks. Tron and Mr. Giggles were rolling around in the dirt, wrestling to decide who was in charge of keeping us alive. I shrugged. Scooting closer to better admire her hunting knife sent Amy stomping off toward the deep, dark woods, lugging her enormous bombproof bass case behind her.

****

Days two, three and four we did the majority of our playing and songwriting. Sleep deprivation and too many hours of direct sunlight made it difficult to remember lyrics, but our new tunes sounded awesome. Better than ever before, if you ask me.

I was picking up the banjo pretty quickly, considering I'd never had a lesson. 

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I don't care if I'm in the minority -- I believe that "Bears Aren't Just Big Dogs After All" is the radio-friendliest utopian sing-along ever set to the key of G by five people stranded up trees.

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Around-the-clock music kept away raccoons and other threats to our food supply, which was quickly dwindling because we were protecting our campsite from mosquitoes with heavy bong smoke.

****

Before our vision quest we were notorious for wasting hours of rehearsal time getting high and bickering about what we should call our band. Tron and Mr. Giggles typically wound up on the floor of our practice space, wrestling over whose stupid band name idea was best. They both believed their nicknames made them authorities.

Once we were off the grid we realized how little dumb shit like a name matters. By noon of our second day we were all about the music. We even tuned up for a change.

****

From the dinosaurs to the Donner party to our band's stupid drive north on I-35, one certainty has kept this big insane world wobbling on its axis.

What is it? Everything seems like a good idea at the time.

****

When the bear attacked a couple of days later, we thought at first it was Amy's big black wheeled case dancing out of the forest because it had never heard us finish a song together. It was the same size and color. Or maybe it was a lot bigger and covered with fur. Our tired, bloodshot eyes were no longer up to discerning significant details of any kind.

After we realized our mistake, we tried to convince the bear to get high with us. 

Which didn't go according to plan.

There were enough trees standing nearby that we didn't have to get homo-cozy. But we were still close enough to hear each other's sobs. We were blubbering cowards, except Amy. She shrieked and swore at the bear to take his nasty ass back into the woods. "Shoo, bear!" Amy shouted. "Daddy didn't buy that for you to stick your thing in! Get yourself a real girlfriend! What is it with dudes? Leave my bass alone, you pervert! Don't make me climb down there!"

The bear finally wandered off because we weren't storing food at our campsite. We'd eaten the last of our food the day before.  

****

Running out of bud and firewood did us in. It was the wee hours of our fifth or sixth night. We'd quit speaking to each other earlier that afternoon, after our heads were clear again, except for the hallucinations that occur when an exhausted, emaciated body starts digesting itself.    

Several hours later we simply nodded in silence when Jake offered his drumsticks and snare drum to keep our fire burning. None of us could afford the fines for gathering your own firewood inside a Minnesota state park. 

His drumsticks burned as quickly as you might imagine. The steel rim of his drum didn't burn at all, just glowed hot in the fire -- like a hungry mouth from some horrific hell.

When Tron's beautiful Gibson reissue was nothing more than a smoldering sacrifice vaguely in the shape of a guitar, Mr. Giggles wiped a tear from his eye, heaved a long sigh, and tossed in his Martin. 

Amy and I both knew that one of us would have to go next -- her bass or my banjo.  

****

I'm not proud at all about what happened after that. But dawn was hours away -- and I couldn't fathom surrendering my new instrument now that I knew several chords.

Cracking open all the cassettes we'd been recording to submit as demos was totally wrong. That I get. Chewing up and trying to swallow the ribbons of tape inside was maybe crazy. Maybe not. Does it matter? Regardless, it sealed my fate with my bewildered band.    

"Nothing we've put ourselves through out here made a difference," I said. "Sorry. Metallic. That's how our music tastes -- like plastic hair, actually. It's depressing to imagine we were doomed all along, but now I wonder. Wait a second. I'm feeling sick. Oh, yeah."

Even by the dim light of the moon I could see that Tron, Jake, Amy, and Mr. Giggles wanted to kill me somehow and bury my corpse in tiny pieces, like so many turd piles.

Fortunately, they were too tired and weak to be much of a threat. 

When I was done puking up our music I slipped off my soiled t-shirt and disappeared with my banjo into the gloom surrounding us. The others chased me a few yards in every direction before they got tangled in the weeds. One by one, I heard them collapse, then groan and curse their fates.

Here's what's weird: that same confusion kept me running until I noticed I was up past my knees in frigid water. Was it Lake Superior? I can't say for sure.

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About the author: Brian Beatty's jokes, poems and stories have appeared in numerous print and online publications, including Conduit, elimae, The Evergreen Review, Exquisite Corpse, Hobart, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, METRO, Opium, Phoebe, The Rake, Seventeen and Yankee Pot Roast. Brian's stories "Squirrels," "Velour" and "The Four Hermans" have previously appeared at mnartists.org.

Related event:

Brian Beatty will be performing his first solo show, "The Big Four Oh: 40 Jokes, Poems and Stories by Brian Beatty," as part of the 2010 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Tickets and more information are available on the show's webpage.

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About the featured artist for this story: Eddie Hamilton was born in San Gabriel, California and was raised both in California and Roseville, Minnesota. He has been actively supporting and exhibiting art in Minnesota for the past ten years. Eddie hasn't taken a linear path while pursuing his education. He bounced around from junior college to the University of Wisconsin Madison, the University of Minnesota, and technical school for graphic design. After 15 years as a graphic designer Eddie is once again in school taking coursework leading to earning a teaching license in special education. Eddie's current work focuses on interpersonal relationships, especially the everyday heroics of individuals. It's his hope to capture the emotion of these relationships with very simple characters, basic color usage, and the juxtaposition of it all.

Many private collectors around the United States own Eddie's work. His work can be seen at Spill the Wine Restaurant, Rosenthal's Furniture, and a rotation of exhibitions around the country. After 15 years as a corporate graphic designer Eddie is now a full time artist and stay at home dad. His studio is in the Northrup King Building in the Minneapolis Arts District, he also works out of his home studio in South Minneapolis.

Don't miss the slideshow above, with work by Eddie Hamilton handpicked to accompany the story.