On Mobs and Movements
by Leah Johnson
Photo: Chuck Huru
The City, 12:25 PM CST. All is forgiven when L sees K standing on the edge of Grant Park. K’s hair is newly locked and freshly dyed and her russet orange Free People dress swings around her ankles, perfectly cinematic and wholly cliche, like God himself is directing the film that K believes her life to be. K’s phone is to her ear, no doubt calling L again. It’s the fifth time in as many minutes, asking where she is, how long ‘til she gets there, what direction her car is coming from. K has a thing about L being late —and L has been late for everything in the fifteen years they’ve known each other. But none of that matters, because today they’ll do the thing they’ve waited for for at least ten of those fifteen years and things like time won’t matter anymore.
The Desert, 3:22 PM PST. J is wearing cowgirl boots that her daddy bought for her on her 16th birthday. They’re her favorite shoes—even though people from her new liberal arts school in California might think they’re little more than a weird Southern quirk—and the only ones she could imagine wearing on a day like today. Today, she’s gonna sing defiantly, loud and more than a little out of tune, with her boyfriend, D, by her side. She’s gonna smile like she used to, back before the incident. She’s gonna sneak sips of D’s Bud Light because she hasn’t had a regular fucking beer in a really long time. Everyone at her new school prefers shitty local ales that her daddy would have clicked his tongue at and said, Damn them hipster shits, don’t know nothing about a good drink! To which she would have replied, Leave them alone, Daddy. They’re not all bad. He would have rustled her hair and kissed her forehead and said, That’s my baby. Always believing the best in people.
The City, 12:45 PM CST. Security is tight. Tighter than L imagined it would be, given the target audience. She’s only known metal detectors and pat-downs and searches like this at venues black folks frequent. Not at places for young white kids on designer drugs their parents paid for, wearing outfits from Urban Outfitters. Something like anxiety unfurls itself within her chest at the sight, the need for security like that at a place like this. K keeps talking, unaware of the calculations L is running in her head—plotting a quick escape in case of emergency, finding the nearest exits—and continues recounting her time front row at The Killers set two nights prior. This is their relationship. L worries; K dreams.
The Desert, 4:05 PM PST. Music didn’t used to be her thing, and her mama used to say that everybody had a special thing. She said everybody had something that made them tick, that set them apart, helped them make sense of the world. The music had been her daddy’s thing. He experienced it with his whole self. And J liked it, of course, had no choice in her house, but didn’t understand it. But now, J feels more than she hears it playing on the stage in front of her. Feels the way the drum kicks vibrate through her body on every downbeat, the way it shakes her whole frame with intensity. She’s standing in front of D, with one of his arms wrapped around her waist and the other in the air in the hang-loose sign. J reaches up to pull the cowboy hat off of his head and places it on her own. He smiles down at her and—honest to God—yeehaws before kissing her through a smile. This, she thinks, is my special thing.
The City, An Abridged History of Childhood Friends. L and K met in the fifth grade. They had been seated in the same cluster of desks on the first day of class. L was a transfer with a short fuse and a lot to prove. K smiled too much and laughed a lot and the two seemed to balance each other out. They became unlikely best friends. They were rarely great at the same things—sports, choir, theatre—but always loved one thing just enough to keep them coming back together. They had a penchant for love stories and music and believed that there was nothing in the world better than when those things intersected. You should know, that day in The City, they still believed that this was possible, that those two things could come together simultaneously and make the world better.
The Desert, A Sociological Study of Country Music Fans. J was raised on Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Maybe Willie Nelson if her mama had her way with the radio. She was raised by two fanatics. Two believers, who worshiped at the Ryman the way some people worship at the altar. Two lovers, who got engaged at the Opry and married in the backyard, who had their first dance to the real version of “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” Two proud as hell, gun-toting, honky-tonk-on-Saturday-night-and-family-dinner-on-Sunday-afternoons rednecks. It’s in her blood, this thing, this sound, this music. She was born of it. And part of her is convinced she’ll die of it too, wrapped up in the croon of a Gibson SJ.
The City, 1:30 PM CST. Compromises must be made. L likes hip-hop more than K but they both know enough of Machine Gun Kelly to find themselves on the periphery of the audience that’s gathered to watch him perform. This too, is their relationship. Happy mediums. Making the best of the spaces between them, the gaps in their common ground. Machine Gun Kelly performs songs the two remember from high school, so for the duration of his show they rap and sweat and jump along with the musician turned actor that the aughts refused to leave behind.
The City, An Abridged History of Childhood Friends Part II. L and K have a shared favorite movie called Tonight You’re Mine and can quote it almost verbatim. It’s a love story set against the backdrop of T in the Park, a music festival that used to be held in Scotland every summer. Their favorite line from this movie is also one of the corniest, and they’re both willing to admit as much. But it doesn’t matter. This is why they love this place the way they do. It’s why they love doing this thing together the way they do. You cram a hundred thousand people together, no music. What do you get? A riot. You give them music, we all in this together. Music turns a mob into a movement. Music turns a mob into a movement.
The Desert, A Sociological Study of Country Music Fans II. J didn’t have to come to the desert to find the music, she knows. But she wanted to get away. Away from the college where she doesn’t fit and the hometown that doesn’t feel like hers anymore and the apologetic glances from Tandy, the man who owns the gas station around the corner from her parents’ house and always gave her daddy a fair price on tune-ups. She didn’t have to come to The Desert for that, but she sure as hell had to go somewhere. And where better to be than in the middle of a couple thousand people who love this stuff the same way her daddy did? Men that drawl like her daddy and drink beers in one gulp like her daddy did. Maybe she doesn’t want to get away, she thinks, maybe she just wants to get closer. She isn’t sure it’s working.
The City, 2:30 PM CST. It’s hot. K can’t stop talking about how fucking hot it is and how expensive the little cans of Deja Blue are and Why didn’t we bring a Camelbak? and how now it’s almost sort of raining and they swear even the drizzle generates a little steam as it hits the concrete outside of the merch building they’re standing in. L thinks it’s too hot. The kind of heat that makes people feel restless, act reckless this time of year. Feels like the kind of heat that killed 739 people in this city back in ‘95. Like the kind of heat that makes shells of black folks. And I guess that’s the whole point, right? she asks as K tries on the festival t-shirt with the full list of the artists playing the weekend on the back. The point of what? The shirt fits but it’s not really the one she wants, so she folds it and puts it back on the shelf. L thinks that this thing they do, that they chase, is how she keeps the shell at bay. But she doesn’t know how to talk about that yet. She isn’t sure that K will understand that yet. Nothing she replies and points to the shirt behind K’s head. You should get that one instead.
The Desert, 6:32 PM PST. D thinks they should take a break from the shows to grab something to eat. They find a vendor selling hot dogs and order one for each of them. When D is ready to pay, a loud bang rings out from behind them. J screams and drops the hot dog, but when she turns, she realizes it was just one of the tech guys, mishandling some equipment. D turns to her, a little amused at his girlfriend’s alarm. You all right, baby? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost. He’s new. They’ve only been officially together for three months—long distance for all of it—and this trip was a big leap for the two of them. So he doesn’t know that when J hears a crash all she can think about is the sound of the Little Debbie rack as it hit the ground. How it clanged as her daddy fell into it after taking the bullet that ended his life. He doesn’t know that this is the first time in a year she’s left the house for anything other than work or class or to fly back home for the funeral. She’s terrified of being so exposed, so vulnerable. He doesn’t know that when he gives his cash to the woman vending their hot dogs that she can still see Tandy on the other side of the counter, eyes wide as he sees the man with the gun rush him, her daddy and the money. That she was stunned frozen. That she just watched her daddy become a shell—nothing more than a body—and couldn’t even manage a scream. He doesn’t know because she can’t tell him. So she just smiles and says: Sorry, I guess I’m just a little out of it.
The City, 3:20 PM CST. They show up early for this set, but only barely. Early enough to get close to the ASL interpreters who stand just behind the metal barriers. L spends more time watching them during the show than she does the actual performer. She feels like she’s watching them generate life with their hands—and that feels cliche even as she thinks it—which makes it a lot easier to forget about the fresh hole in her favorite pair of Vans from where that big guy stepped on them in the mosh earlier.
The City, 5:12 PM CST. K looks like something L has never seen before. And that’s to say she looks free in a way L has never seen before. She spins and smiles and turns her head to the sky as she listens to the band that’s playing the stripped-down set in front of them. She wants that, too. She wants to live in this the way that K can, wants to let go in a way she rarely does. So she toes off her shoes and doesn’t think about the dirt beneath her feet or the couple kissing to her left. K pulls up her Snapchat and the two press their faces together in the frame to sing along to “Stolen Dance.” L thinks that it means more now than it did when she listened to it on K’s festival playlist before she arrived this morning. She can’t remember the last time she felt so much and feared so little.
The Desert, 8:00 PM PST. J doesn’t know if D is her soulmate, but she thinks that they might be something close. She thinks that she wants to tell him the story of how her parents first dance was to that Hank Williams song and how she might even want to tell him that she loves him for the first time. She loves him for asking her to come with him to a music festival in the desert, loves that he calls her by an endearment even when they’re arguing. She loves that he never asks why she can’t come out to see him more often or why she ran away to that school in California. She turns to him, right as the next artist takes the stage Hey, D? Can I tell you something? He smiles and kisses her like he always does, gently, and nods before shouting over the music that has just started. Anything, baby! She’s always liked that D calls her baby. He’s so good she thinks as she stumbles after him. So sweet to me. But she can’t do it. Not yet. So she replies: I’m so glad you brought me here this weekend! instead.
The City, 7:00 PM CST. They show up early because they have to get a good spot to watch K’s favorite band, but end up joining a crowd-wide effort to surf a dude out ten minutes in. He’s definitely rolling and probably not well and won’t stop bumping into people. The audience has a shared goal, watching this band, committing to this set, and he’s fucking that up. So they raise their hands above their heads quickly, now one body expelling the thing that ails it. And when he’s gone—able to finally and completely rededicate themselves to the people on stage—they all shout in unison, Welcome to your life, yeah, yeah! It could be a fantasy, yeah, yeah! like they never have before. And L thinks it’s because maybe they haven’t. Maybe this is different. Like L, maybe this is the first time in a long time they’ve felt a part of something this big.
The Desert, 9:43 PM PST. Today’s lineup is her type of country. She dances and giggles with D as she lets him twirl her in a way that makes her feel silly. They both love this song, and D tugs at the edges of her skirt as the lyrics spill from the mouth of their favorite singer Sugar, why don’t you put on that sundress I like so much? “Johnny Cash” isn’t her favorite song of his—not by a longshot—but this is the moment she’s been waiting months for. She’s happy. Not just because of the song or the festival or D, but because she can think in the Right Now. She can finally breathe.
The City, 10:05 PM CST. L is crying and she doesn’t know why. She’s holding hands with her best friend and the skyline she’s spent her life yearning towards is shining in the background like it holds something unnamable; the hotels along Michigan Ave all lit up as though they too can’t bear to turn away, can’t fathom missing this show. This night. This life. The band she’s loved since she was fifteen and listening to her hot sophomore English teacher pluck out a cover of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” on his acoustic guitar during 4th period Honors is playing and the stage is glowing purple and pink and blue in a way she’s never seen a stage glow before and everything feels like it’s supposed to. This moment is every bit as alive and whole as she’s dreamed it would be.
The Desert, 10:05 PM PST. J doesn’t know what’s happening, thought maybe the pops were fireworks, but everything suddenly feels wrong. Everyone is screaming. She can’t tell where one voice ends and another begins. D grabs her hand and pulls her along because her feet are glued to the ground. She can’t seem to move, can’t seem to think with all this goddamn screaming around her. She’s stunned frozen. Her daddy hits the ground again. Tandy is crying as he dials the police. Her daddy isn’t breathing anymore and she can’t bring him back. D yanks her harder in the opposite direction of the rapidfire popopopopopopopop and shouts, pleads You gotta run, baby! That’s a gun! You gotta run! Then they’re both on the ground.
The City, A Brief Glimpse Into The Future. In a few weeks, L will read a story about a music festival gone wrong. She will be back at school, ready to begin the last year of her MFA, scrolling through Twitter when she hears. She will cry, on principle, out of hopelessness maybe, as she reads another list of names. She will text K Did you hear what happened? who will reply Jesus Christ. Again?? And she will not know then that the man with the semi-automatic weapon wanted to extinguish her too. She will not know then that on the day she danced in The City, the man had reserved a hotel room on Michigan Avenue with a perfect view of Grant Park. She will not know then that he had made a plan to end her that he simply failed to execute. She doesn’t know that he did this once more, at another place, another festival, before he found his way to The Desert. But she will send another text, this time to her mother, reminding her that she loves her.
The Desert, 10:06 PM PST. 22,000 people running, falling, bleeding. More people than she’s ever seen, rushing past her, some even stepping on her leg as they pass by. She’s sees it happen, but can’t feel it. She can’t feel anything below her waist. To her left, D lies flat on his stomach, more blood than she’s ever seen racing crimson towards her on the ground. She reaches out to touch him, to shake him, her turn now to tell him that they have to keep going. But his eyes aren’t his eyes anymore. He’s gone. She can’t bring him back. She finally screams and it mingles endlessly with the sound of American terror around her.
The City, 10:06 PM CST. They have to leave before the encore if they want to make it back to the train before the rush hits, K says. They’re both exhausted, well-worn but weightless after the day they’ve had. L hesitates before following her towards the direction of the L Train. K turns back and asks Do you want to stay a little longer? Her eyes are drooping and they have a long drive ahead of them. We can stay a little longer if you want. L starts towards her friend and laces their fingers together on their way out. No she says. I think that’s good enough for one day.
The Desert, 10:08 PM PST. J read once that it’s hard to see the stars in big cities because of something called ambient light. She thinks about home, about her mama, who she promised to call as soon as she and D returned to the hotel. She thinks about the stars back there, the way they shine above her parents home in the winter. She thinks about standing on that porch with her mama and daddy in the summer and counting the ones that dared to shoot across the sky. She wishes she could see the stars now. But she thinks that there are no stars in this part of the desert. She thinks that there couldn’t be. Not tonight.
Leah Johnson is a hopeless Midwesterner currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. She is a graduate of the fiction writing MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College and currently works in web editorial at Catapult. Her essays, interviews and short fiction have been published by Electric Lit, The Adroit Journal, Bustle, The Establishment, HuffPost, and elsewhere. Her debut YA novel, YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN (Scholastic, 2020) is forthcoming.