A Portrait of the Artist in Four Kiss Songs
I. Strutter (1996)
I am four years old. I come home from the babysitter, who is Aunt Marie. My cousin Abby is sick. She lost all her hair. My hair is still long, and blonde from the summer sun.
My parents have strung up Christmas lights on the kitchen wall. They spell out K-I-two-lightning-bolts-for-S’s. The Hottest Band in the World is ready to rock our two-bedroom apartment.
The camcorder is setup on the tripod. In the bathroom, Mom paints my face like Gene, even though my favorite is Ace. My black t-shirt spells out KISS UNPLUGGED in white stick-on letters.
I am the Hottest Band in the World.
They are reunited, the real Kiss, for the first time since 1979. They will appear live at Kemper Arena on July third. 98.9 the Rock is running a contest. Best impersonation wins two tickets to see the show.
My parents turn out the lights and shove a guitar in my hand. It is bright orange and made of plastic. Mom settles in behind the camera. Dad presses play on the CD player. “2,000 Man” plays. I mouth along. I forget the words. Mom gestures for me to keep going.
“I don’t know the words,” I say, breaking character.
“I thought this one was your favorite?” Mom whispers.
Dad changes the song. “Strutter.” I stick out my tongue like Gene.
It is not enough. I do not win the tickets.
But. We go anyway. It is my first concert. We sit far from the stage, but there are screens that show everything up-close. One of my earplugs falls out and we cannot find it so Mom shoves a used cigarette butt in my right ear as a replacement.
II. Talk to Me (2001)
At ten, I come across the small LP-shaped piece of bubblegum that originally came as an insert in my dad’s copy of 1980’s Unmasked. It is in a cardboard sleeve that features the album artwork, and it has been there for over twenty years. I sniff it. It does not smell like much of anything. I know I should not chew it.
I chew it.
It crumbles in my mouth. First like chalk, then like powder. It does not stick to itself and transform into a sweet rubber like gum normally does. It falls apart, the pieces smaller and smaller until my mouth is full of dust. It tastes like nothing.
I put on the album and skip ahead to “Talk to Me.” It is sung by Ace, so it is my favorite.
I spit out the gum and put the cardboard sleeve in a box with some baseball cards and forget about it for many years.
III. Let Me Know (2013)
I am in college and not sure what to do with myself. Big picture or small picture. The days run together, and I am not excited by anything. I want to be a writer so I am friends with other people who want to be writers, though I am not sure if it does any good for me to be friends with them or not.
These friends go to poetry slams where people read poems and members of the audience judge which ones they like best. Competition. Conquest and domination. Just what I was after when I decided I wanted to become a writer.
They ask me if I will come to one of them. I buy face paint from the Dollar Store and smudge white and black on my face. I do not try very hard. It does not really look like Gene. It just looks like I am sick.
I wait in the bathroom until they call my name. I take the stage and sing, acapella, the first verse and chorus to “Let Me Know,” from Kiss’s 1974 self-titled debut album.
I get voted to the next round, which is unexpected.
When it comes back around to me, I do the same routine again. I get very emotional this time. I feel like I will cry any second. And I get voted to the final round.
For the final round, I pull out the notebook I write poems in during anthropology class, and I read one of those instead of repeating the routine a third time. It is about some girls I dated and how much I loved them. But it is no good. It is not inspired. It does not capture even a sliver of my soul.
I lose the battle.
IV. King of the Nighttime World (1996 Redux)
We end the night at the hospital. Someone rear ends us as soon as we exit the parking lot. We are okay, but because I am so small, my parents want to make sure. I fall asleep and they wake me up again. Asleep, awake.
They change me into the t-shirt I got at the show. It is size adult large, and it will not fit me properly until I am a young man. On the front is the same picture of Kiss from the Destroyer album cover, an image I know well, but instead of a wasteland, the band is standing on top of the world. North America, to be exact, as the globe has been rotated so that North America is on the very top. The familiar logo is situated behind them, filled in with an American flag pattern.
I am not hurt. I am just tired.
Who knows how late it is by the time we pick up my sister from my grandma’s house. At some point, I fall asleep and stay asleep. I dream about Gene Simmons flying high into the rafters and spitting blood all over himself. I dream about Peter Criss’s drumkit rising out of the ground to reveal two wildcats with glowing eyes. I dream about Ace Frehley’s guitar smoking from the center. I run toward the stage, but I can never reach them.
Dylan Pyles is a writer living in Kansas City. He mostly writes fiction and nonfiction, but writes and sings songs from time to time, too. You can find his fiction in Atticus Review and Hypertext Magazine, and his nonfiction in Catapult.