A hand-drawn image of a Zippo lighter, lit up.

“The Instrumental” by Gunnar Ohberg

Gunnar is enrolled in the MFA in writing at the University of Saskatchewan. A graduate of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Gunnar received a BA in English from the University of Mississippi. His awards include the Warren Akin IV Award for Excellence in English. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in Southwest Georgia Living, The Old Red Kimono, The Racket, and The Mark Literary Review. He currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi and dreams of cajun food.

The Instrumental

A sunshower had come and gone, leaving a wet heat that made everyone in the strip mall’s parking lot glisten like Publix rotisserie. Fat Chad sat on the hood of his Impala and studied me carefully, almost tenderly, as the beer and pills waged war in my stomach. I leaned against the weathered shell of a newspaper rack near the entrance to the venue and gazed in wonder at the great bulk of him. Marinating in the dusklight and the faint glow of the venue’s marquee, he looked radiant and massive, a strange and wondrous planet of a man. Durden walked out of the corner store and strolled over, slapping a pack of cigarettes against one of his palms. I tried to greet him, and a thick gob of brown drool oozed from my mouth.

“How messed up is he?” Durden asked.

“Just enough,” Fat Chad said, lighting a Black and Mild with a Zippo the size of a Texas belt buckle.

Durden looked at me and smiled. We called him Durden because he liked to fight. Emocore was big in Marietta in those days, and often the three of us would go to see a punk show whose closer would be some sad group with gothic literary references in their name, rail-thin high-schoolers all sporting the same uneven bangs and smudged mascara and tight jeans, always crying through their choruses and high-kicking like can-can dancers during the interludes. The emo kids in the audience would form lines and practice their karate moves while the band played, and Durden would ease into the pit doing those same kicks and jabs and whatever and then turn on some unlucky bastard, usually the biggest guy in the room, and knock his teeth in. He was tall and lanky, had the same brittle, bony structure and sickly color of a fast-food vegan, and it always amazed us how he could lay out someone twice his size in just one punch. He had a real talent. Len would kick him out of the venue for a week, sometimes two.

“You alright there, buddy?” Durden asked me, grinning. I nodded.

“He’ll rally,” Chad said. “He’s always like this at first.”

Fat Chad had taken the same oxys I had, chased it with the same can of Steel Reserve. Yet he looked just fine, perched on his car like some kind of punk rock Buddha, new sweat stains forming around the old ones on his sleeveless tee. Looking as if nothing could touch him without his permission. That like a castle, he was built to be impenetrable.

I gripped the newspaper rack and forced myself to straighten up. “What time’s the show?”

“Not for another hour,” Chad said “See, he’s fine!”

Durden laughed and grabbed my shoulder, shaking it as if he were congratulating me. We all knew he was really fucking around, seeing if he could get me to lose my balance and fall. I did the only thing I could think of, which was to laugh. I wiped the drool off my chin.

Len and the door guy, Gareth, came out and lit up cigarettes. Len squinted when he noticed Durden, who beamed at him and waved like he was Andy Griffith’s kid. Then he glared at me.

“What’s wrong with him?” Len asked.

“He’s just a little dehydrated,” Durden said.

“Y’all aren’t supposed to drink in front of the venue.”

“We’re not,” Chad said, taking a sip of his beer.

“Don’t let him puke on the sidewalk,” Len said.

“You hear that?” Durden said, clapping me on the back. “Len says you can’t puke on the sidewalk. So don’t think about like when an old fat guy takes a shit, and he’s so fucking big that the fat folds around his taint like a burrito, so he can’t wipe, so the shit just stays there, and then he has to run around, so his taint gets all sweaty, and like mixes with the crust of shit in his little taint burrito and makes like a silty mixture, and it runs down his leg and the back of his nuts.”

Len shook his head and walked back inside. Chad was cracking up, the poor Impala shuddering under his weight. “Silty mixture,” he said.

I knew Durden was just acting silly. To be honest, I could barely follow a word he said. I was looking at the shadow of Chad’s car stretched along the parking lot, wishing I could just lay there a while, eyes closed, while people took turns pouring bottles of water on me.

“You ever put anything in those Black and Milds?” Gareth asked.

“Fuck no,” Chad said.

“You mind if I bum one?”

“No problem.” He pulled one of the skinny cigars out of his pack and handed it to Gareth. But before the door guy could reach it, Chad flung it on the ground, right next to the glob of brown goo at my feet.

“What the hell?” Gareth asked.

“Work for it,” Fat Chad said. “I did.”

Durden began to make retching sounds next to me, really selling it. He did it over and over and over until I leaned forward laughing, and then started to vomit. A few months after that show, Durden got a woman pregnant and found God. Last I heard, he worked at a car dealership, punching time clocks instead of faces.


Inside the venue was cold and dimly lit. I knew I was getting past the high when I started sweating again. None of the bands on the bill were very popular, and the venue, a twenty-by-twenty yard blacktop square with tiled roofing, was mostly empty. Someone had snagged me a beer from the “bar,” a small cooler nestled in one of the venue’s corners that Len rabidly guarded once the doors opened. Years later, as diabetes ate up his feet, he would sit in a wheelchair and guard that cooler like it was the only thing he owned. Even when the city stopped letting him sell beer inside the place and all the cooler had was Red Bull and three-dollar bottles of water, there sat Len, stoic as a bridge troll, daring anyone to test him. I drank the beer and felt the foam run down my chin and over my hand, and then I felt better.

A teenage band with a lot of brass instruments was busy hustling itself off the stage. A man stood at one of the wings, an electric Fender strapped to him. I tried to pin a scene on him and couldn’t. He was wearing a leather jacket, not one of those sleek retro New York numbers like the Ramones wore but not one of those floppy messes favored by the Seattle kids either. His hair wasn’t long or spiked or shaved or anything; it just sat there, brown and a little greasy. When he got on stage, he moved the mics away from him, rolled out his Marshall amp from the collection of gear at the back of the stage, plugged in, and started playing. He was playing as if a full band was backing him, palming chords at certain times like he was riffing a verse, letting some of his stuff ring out the way guitars do when the vocals need room to breathe. One of his songs had what felt like seven years of feedback in it. A mix of blues, rock, and punk, without so much as a voice to flavor it. What got us most, I think, was how honest and sad it felt.

I searched for Durden, thinking that if anyone knew how to respond, it would be him. I found him standing in the middle of the room, arms crossed over his chest and with a look of concerned wonder on his face, like he’d just witnessed a baby being born but couldn’t tell yet if the child was breathing. Only Fat Chad, talking to Gareth at the back of the room, appeared unfazed. I couldn’t hear what he was saying over the guitar, but I could see his hands moving excitedly, the cherry of his cigar dancing like a lightning bug in the darkness.

The man on stage finished his set, and without thanking anyone he unplugged his guitar, rolled the amp back with the other gear, and walked off the stage. There was a smattering of brief applause, and then the sound guy, JB, switched to house music while the punk band began setting up. They looked a little confused as they took their equipment out of their heavily stickered cases and kept stealing glances at the man with the guitar, who had returned to his position at the side of the stage, watching them with cool disinterest. One of the band members said something to the others, and they laughed. But I thought they looked uneasy up there, sweating under the harsh lights of the cramped stage.

I walked outside and lit a cigarette. The sun had set, and the air had lost some of its water so that there was almost a coolness when the breeze came through. Chad was back on the hood of his Impala, still talking to Gareth.

I walked over to the Impala and leaned against the passenger door, careful not to let the studs on my belt scratch up the finish. After a couple minutes, a few guys came over.

“I like that ink,” one of them said, pointing to the Confederate flag on Chad’s upper-right shoulder.

Chad stopped talking and sized them up. There were four of them, and all but one had their heads shaved. They wore sleeveless denim jackets half-covered in tattered patches. Most of the patches were either black or a filthy whitish beige. A few were blood red and had iron crosses in them. I looked at their boots, and sure enough, the laces were white and red. Chad studied them and took a long drag on his cigar, and when he opened his mouth to speak, a cloud larger than most torsos erupted from him.

“This thing here?” he asked, pointing at the flag.

“That’s right,” the skinhead said.

“Thanks. I’m thinking of keeping it.”

“Where’d you get it done?”

“Nowhere you’d know.” He pointed at a patch on one of the jackets. “You like No Remorse?”


“Check it out,” Fat Chad said, grinning as he slid off the hood of his car. “I think you’ll like this, then.” He opened the driver’s-side door and plopped in the seat and bent forward, and started rummaging around.  Chad loved fast food, ate it all the time despite the fact he had already suffered two heart attacks and wasn’t yet thirty. For as long as I’d known him, the floorboard of his car was covered in heaps of garbage from different drive-thrus. The skins laughed when he started flinging handfuls of greasy bags and stale fries and taco crumbles and straw wrappers out of the open side door.

“Your friend doesn’t give a fuck,” one of them said.

“He really doesn’t,” I agreed.

Fat Chad straightened in his seat and held a burned CD aloft. He winked at the guys, his face red and slicked with sweat. Then he started the car and popped in the disk. A few seconds passed, and the opening piano chords of Tupac’s “Changes” rang out from the Impala’s speakers. The skins looked at each other, confused. One of them set his sights on me, like I might let them in on the joke. I shrugged at him, struggling to hide my smile. Chad cranked the music louder and stepped out of the car. The skins glared at him.

“What the hell?” one of them said.

“Pretty good, right?” Chad said. “What, you don’t like that funky fresh beat?”

Only then did it cross my mind that one or more of the skins might be carrying something that could hurt us. It was rare, this far into the suburbs, to have someone pull a knife on someone else, but it wasn’t unheard of.

“The fuck’s your problem?” one of the skins asked Chad.

But Chad was done talking. It was like he had taken that friendly part of him and folded it neat as a shirt and tucked it away, made himself big and hollow until finally, he had room to hide whatever kindness he owned in the vast darkness of him. He was still smiling, and I knew first-hand if one of the skins made a move on him that Chad would want to do something bad and that the smile would still be there when he was done, or they were done with him. The skins must have sensed that too, or maybe they realized what I’d begun to suspect, that truly nothing could hurt Chad, that he was above all of us in that regard. Because even though they outnumbered us two-to-one–and I was barely a number that mattered, to be honest–they ended up turning and silently heading in the direction of the convenience store. One of them stopped and looked over his shoulder at us and spit on the sidewalk before continuing on. Fat Chad started dancing and shouting Tupac’s lyrics at their backs. He didn’t stop until they’d reached the store and skulked inside. Then he laughed, the great bulk of him bobbing with fits of glee.

“They spit on the ground,” he said. “Did you see that? Like they were in a Guy Ritchie film.” He couldn’t even smoke the Black and Mild. It tickled him so pink.


Everybody knew Anthony. He had that kind of face and did and said those kinds of things at parties that made strangers want to walk up and offer him a shot or ask if he knew so-and-so or what kinds of bands he liked or whatever. When I first met him, he was playing beer pong, shirtless, his chest and shoulders and back covered in thick plumes of shameless black hair. He had a few tattoos under his collar bone though the hair over them was so thick I couldn’t make out what they were. A tall, thin woman with pink hair and black lipstick was giggling and shaking her head at something Anthony was saying. I thought about walking over and asking her if she might know where I could get something better than beer; a lot of the skinny ones did around that time, and PBR wasn’t doing it for me so much anymore. Pink Hair left for the bathroom before I could work up the courage. Anthony lifted the Solo cup in his hand and shouted, “I need a wingman!” and before I knew what I was doing, I said, “Let’s go, then.”

He stared at me for a moment. “You gotta lose the shirt,” he said. “We’re skins.”

I thought of the red patches with the iron crosses in them. “Skins?”

“Shirts and skins.” He pointed with his free hand across the table at a couple pouring drinks into more red Solo cups. “They’re the shirts.”

I had been naked at parties before, so losing the shirt was no big deal. I peeled it off as Anthony took a long swig from his cup. He reached out and pinched a few of my chest hairs between his pointer finger and thumb, and I thought for a minute he was going to rip them out. But he just let them go and handed me a ping pong ball and yelled, “Shirts versus sweaters,” and when he smiled, I knew we would be friends until one of us died. We won that game handily and kept playing round after round until gray light broke through the blinds. People found parts of the floor to lay on, and soon we looked like an army that had lost a battle so bad the survivors hadn’t bothered to recover the bodies.

A year after his showdown with the skinheads, Fat Chad moved out of his mother’s house and into a low-rent apartment with Anthony. That fall, I paid them a visit. I don’t really remember why I was there that day; life at that point was like a tide that washed me up on different shores from time to time. Anthony was on his couch in the apartment’s tiny living room, slapping rhythms on his thighs the way every drummer I knew did when they were bored and trying to be polite about it. I must not have been very entertaining standing around because Anthony was really letting the front of his legs have it. They didn’t have a television because they couldn’t afford one: Chad had been roofing that summer for what he called “illegal pay,” and Anthony was determined never to do anything for money that didn’t involve a drum kit.

A young couple started yelling at each other in the parking lot outside. Even two floors up, Anthony and I could hear everything they were saying. He tried to accompany their shouts with his drumming. I laid on the floor, staring at a pizza crust caked in dust and lint under the couch and wondering if this was how Dee Dee got his start.

I sat up. “When’s Chad getting back?”

“What do you mean?”

“He works on Wednesdays, right?”

“It’s Thursday, buddy. But no, he lost that job.”

“He lost it?” That didn’t seem like Chad to give up something like that.

“Yeah,” Anthony said. “Just stopped showing up one day. Last week, I think.”

“So what’s he up to now?”

“He’s in his room.” Anthony shrugged. “He hardly leaves it. You wanna see him? First door on the left in the hall. Just follow the smell.”

Anthony was right: the smell leaking out from under the closed door was something powerful. I had ridden with Chad in his Impala many times over the last year, my feet and ankles engulfed in a sea of ancient fast food as he smoked and ate and cracked long, wheezing farts in the seat next to mine. I was used to the stink of him. But in the apartment that day, standing at his door, I noticed something new had been added to the mix, a kind of burning chemical odor I suddenly feared might poison me forever if I breathed in too much of it. I knocked on the door.

“Chad, it’s me,” I said. “Can I come in?”

“Come in,” Chad said.

“Have fun,” Anthony called to me from the living room.

I opened the door. Chad was stretched out on the bed; nude save for a pair of light blue boxers. I marveled at his incredible gut, heaving and shimmering as it spilled over the boxers, flanked by highways of stretch marks and strange grapevine bruises I later learned were bed sores. Chad was smoking a Black and Mild, no surprise there, ashing it onto the carpet next to his bed. Most of the floor was covered with colorful plastic relics of his interests, past and present: third-world action figures and comic book covers and handles of Popov and CD cases and strange dildos and Bic lighters. There were also many tee shirts spread around, most of them white and covered in stains, and at least four pairs of Doc Martens in various states of dilapidation, and pizza boxes left open to reveal crumbs and greasy paper towels, and a Mickey Mouse clock with half the mouse’s face removed, and in the corner of the room a bright pink toothbrush drowning in a thick brown sludge. Near the sole window in Chad’s room was a cheap dresser with a small wooden record player. Johnny Thunders droned from the player.

There was so much to look at in the room that at first, I didn’t notice the girl lying next to Chad. She was tall and also in her underwear, and her skin was the color of chicken broth. She was smoking a chalet and looking at me like I might walk over and murder her at any moment.

“This is Everdean,” Chad said.

“Hi,” I said, and the woman waved, her expression unchanged. “What are y’all up to?”

“You’re looking at it,” Chad said.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to the chalet.

“Smells like an electrical fire in here, doesn’t it?”


“That’s the meth.”

“Oh, okay.”

I’d heard a little about meth at that point, mostly from my buddy Stuger, who claimed he was friends with a couple one-percenters and regularly lauded their business acumen. He told me people made the drug in places like Jasper and Ellijay and Blue Ridge and that it was cheap because the producers bought most of what they needed from local drug stores. He said the one-percenters had moved it around the mountains for a bit to see if it would catch on before running it down to Atlanta.

“So what’s up?” Fat Chad asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just stopping by. Ant tells me you quit roofing.”

“I guess.”

“What happened?”

“I just woke up one morning and decided I hated ladders. They called me after I didn’t show up and asked me where I was and I told them I wasn’t going to get on another ladder ever again for as long as I lived. They asked how I was gonna get on a roof without a ladder and I told them that was a damn good question, and then I hung up.”


“Plus,” Chad said. “I think I’m getting too fat.”

“What? You? That girlish figure? No way.”

“You’re just saying that ’cause you like my tits.”

I looked at the girl again, who was picking at a scab on her leg. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“You’d know it if you were,” Chad said.

“Leighton’s having a party. You gonna be there?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Gonna pencil it into that busy schedule of yours?” I asked. Immediately, I knew the joke hadn’t landed the way I wanted it to. I felt like I was poking at something, a kind of blister that was growing in Fat Chad’s life that threatened to burst if I needled it too hard. He just nodded and took the chalet and stared at it.

“Well,” I said. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

“Alright, man.”

“See you around.”

“Sure,” he said.


I closed the door, and that was the last I ever saw of him.

Years later, I met up with Anthony at this little Irish dive just outside the town square. I’d become something of a patron there, visiting almost daily after I got off working the second shift at a nearby CVS. The jukebox didn’t contain any top forties, and the lights were kept so low that everyone looked like the same kind of shadow and the bartenders knew what I wanted and gave it to me without my having to ask them, and I figure that’s all I really wanted at that time. Plus, when Stuger died, they put his jacket up above the bar, which I thought was kind of them.

Anthony, who had just started managing a bar in Atlanta and had three wild and beautiful children to look after, was trying to make the most of his rare night off. He’d just proposed to his girlfriend, and I’d told him if he could make it up to Marietta I’d buy him a drink. The night rolled on from there. We were stacking shot glasses upside-down like a house of cards in front of us when I heard the sound of a lonely palm-muted guitar oozing from the speakers above.

“I know this song,” I said.

“That’s cool,” Anthony said, fiddling with the bottom row of glasses.

“You remember Len’s venue, up near Kennesaw?”

“Worst green room ever. People used to sneak underage girls back there. Fucking creepy, man. What an awful place.”

“I remember I was playing a show there once, and I was on some stuff and passed out on that couch and woke up right before we had to go on. I don’t think I even knew where I was at that point. I was dating this girl, and after the show she wouldn’t come near me, and later I realized it was because I still smelled like that couch.”

“Oh God. I hope you burned the clothes.”

“Like it would’ve mattered. I think it had seeped through my pores at that point.”

“That’s how plagues start, man. Fucking Patient Zero, over here.” Anthony drained his beer. “Why are we talking about Len’s, anyways?”

“Oh, this song. I think I heard it there once.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. I think some dude none of us knew played it back then. At the time, I thought it was an original.”

I tried to listen to the song, but a group sitting next to us started cackling and then Eileen, the bartender, walked over and chastised us for stacking the glasses. She took them all and put them in the sink next to her runner, and I felt silly for the feeling of defeat that came over me until I noticed Anthony was pouting as well.

“Hey,” I said, still thinking of Len’s. “Whatever happened to Chad?”

“Fat Chad?”

“Yeah. Maybe we shouldn’t call him ‘fat,’ though.”

“Why not? He was huge.”

“I don’t know, maybe it’s not nice, you know?”

Anthony eyed me. “I guess you’re right. Though he gave himself the nickname.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that one.

Anthony drummed on the bartop for a few seconds. “I ever tell you about the week before he moved out of the apartment?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh, get ready. This one’s a classic. Even for him.”

Anthony had a flair for the dramatic that I normally appreciated, but tonight I was too drunk and impatient. “Go on,” I urged.

“Okay. So, he shows up one day–you know he was dealing meth, right?”

“I figured as much.”

“Right, so he’s dealing, and he’s gone most nights, now. Comes back in the mornings, I hear him coughing on the way to his room. I’m thinking: Oh man, please don’t have a heart attack in here. Thinking: How in the hell are you doing that much meth and still weigh four hundred pounds?”

“Well, one night, he shows up early, early for him at least. It’s like barely midnight. And he says he needs to take care of something and that he might not come back, at least not for a while. I’m like, ‘Not come back tonight, you mean?’ And he says there’s a letter and some money in a shoebox near his closet. Tells me to give it to his girlfriend or his mother, whichever I can find first. I’m thinking he’s gotta be kidding. He’s all geeked up and just paranoid or whatever.”

“But then he goes into his room and comes back with a baseball bat. I’m not even joking. And he tells me thanks for everything, and then he’s gone. I’m just lying on the couch, trying to handle this. Like, what the fuck?”

“Did you go check and see if you could find the shoebox?”

“Fuck no! I’m not going in that room unless I have to. So a couple hours go by and then he’s back and–I swear to this–his shirt is covered in blood. I’m like, ‘Jesus, Chad, you’re bleeding!’ And he’s like, ‘It’s not mine.’ Just like that. Goes to his room and slams the door. The next day, I try to bring it up, and he says that nothing happened. Tells me not to bring it up again. Then, next week, he says he’s gonna go stay with a friend and moves out that night.”

“And that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Did you ever see him again?”

“Nope. I heard from a couple friends that they spotted him at a show or something but then nothing.”

“Jesus, you don’t think…?”

Anthony shrugged. “I don’t know, man. I really don’t.”

I raised my beer. “Fat Chad. Roofer extraordinaire.”

“God, how did he ever get up there?”

“I’m guessing some kind of dark magic.”

“Yeah.” Anthony stared at the bartop, at the place where a few sticky ringlets were all that remained of our shot glass fortress.

“It’s not as fun as it used to be,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing. Tomorrow’s gonna be hell. I can already feel it.” He rose from his stool and took out a money clip and laid a couple twenties on the bar, then clapped me on the back. “I have to run before this shit catches up to me,” he said. We exchanged goodbyes and he left.

“One more?” I asked Eileen. She went to the other end of the bar and returned moments later with a PBR and the check.

I sipped on the beer. The last chord of the song drifted out from the speakers and began to fade. I closed my eyes and tried to ride with the note as long as I could. I thought of Len’s and the white blankets of suburbs and the strip malls and the darker places behind the strip malls where sometimes children gripped baseball bats in fear of their lives and all the other places where stories were made. Ahead of us, I pictured the great blank space of the future. I wanted to keep riding. But the chord grew fainter, and then it was gone.

The lights came on and Eileen walked over. “Drink the rest of it out front,” she said. “We’re closed now.”

“One more?” I smiled. “For the road?”

“Sorry,” she said. “You can come get it tomorrow.”

Outside, the night was clear and cold, wind sweeping away autumn to make room for the winter. I looked up at the moon, the fattest one I’d ever seen, tragic and beautiful as it hung there. I wondered who else was left to notice it. Maybe Chad, big and impossible, who like a roach or a star, would find a way to outlive us all. It was very early morning, and all of the lights in the square were off except for the bar marquee, which never went out.

This piece is part of the in medias res March 2021 “Love” Issue. You can read the full issue under the tag “March 2021.”

Image by Olivia Kerslake