Updated: Apr 1, 2021
The head of Johnny Thunders hanging on the wall, an inch above the door, attached to a cedar mount lined with rusted studs. His expression preserved as if just finishing a particularly stellar set at CBGB, his eyes rolled back in a heroin stare.
This was the first thing David Maher noticed upon passing through the unmarked doorway and entering the warehouse. He’d dragged himself to a shit part of town, the absolute toilet. The gallery wasn’t officially open yet. He’d been invited to a special viewing, a party of one, save for the host. Jimmy Gilman. The famed taxidermist.
“You like that, huh?” Jimmy said, nodding toward the disembodied head. “He was my first. I hadn’t, uh…mastered my craft at that point. And didn’t have all the proper instruments yet.”
David opened his mouth to question if his host had made an intentional music pun, but decided against it. Jimmy didn’t read as being intellectually clever enough to have any success with subtle humor.
The taxidermist fidgeted with his hair, a single, thick dreadlock that had matted into a beaver’s tail down his back. His mouth full of busted piano keys. A tattered Discharge t-shirt hung from his slight torso, the threads threatening to snap and leave him topless, exposing his grime-covered stick-and-poke tattoos. He stank of patchouli oil and fried tofu.
David reached toward the Johnny Thunders display, but Jimmy shook his head. No touching.
“He still looks alive,” David said. “Aside from not having a body, that is.”
“True heroes never die. Hell, he can even hum a few bars of ‘Born to Lose’ if you ask nicely.”
David eyed Jimmy, expecting his host to crack a smile or spit out a laugh. He didn’t. The game already growing stale.
“Come on, there’s so much more to see.” Jimmy beckoned David with his entire hand and led him into the heart of the gallery. The lights dimmed to twilight, and the temperature dropped two degrees shy of an igloo. Music drifted from unseen speakers. Something familiar yet foreign. Adolescents “Kids of the Black Hole.” A cover version. And not a very good one. The Agnew brothers’ guitars replaced by synthesizers, the lyrics sung in Farsi.
They strolled through reproductions of icons from every era and subgenre of punk imaginable, from death rock and power violence to ska-core and crossover. All international regions represented, a collection of unsung heroes frozen in time. Some who had passed in their prime, others reworked to appear as if they’d been forever trapped in relative youth. Members of bands David had grown up listening to, some he’d been lucky enough to share a stage with, and even a few he’d never heard of. Newer bands, he guessed. Punk hadn’t died when he’d moved on. It had kept evolving and raging, leaving him covered in dust. Despite his teenage convictions to never surrender, never give in, he’d traded his combat boots and studded jean jacket for dress shoes and a matching tie before age thirty. Almost two decades had passed since then, and he’d grown old. Irrelevant.
“Check these ones out,” Jimmy said. “They’re a lot less, uh…leathery than Mr. Thunders.”
And so the narrated tour began.
First came Siouxsie Sioux (“Millions of midnight creatures wept the night she faded into the fog,” Jimmy said), then Wattie Buchan (“Everyone thought it would be a heart attack that did him in, but he ended up just falling down some stairs.”), then next was Ian Mackaye (“He still doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t fuck—doesn’t do much of anything anymore, to be honest.”), followed by Pig Champion (“This one was a real pain to stuff.”), and on to Justin Pearson (“Choked on one of his own snot rockets. Can you believe it?”), and finally Sakevi Yokoyama (“My business partner never came back from Japan after securing this one and shipping it to me. Don’t ever cross the Yakuza. Holy shit. Just sayin’.”). This was only the first room. No organization. No rules.
“You wanna drink?” Jimmy asked. David nodded, and his host hobbled off to the far end of the warehouse.
What David really wanted—no, needed—was a coffee, but the taxes on beans had skyrocketed to an unaffordable level following Martin Shkreli’s short-lived presidency. He’d have to take what he could get, and hopefully it had a decent kick, hold the side effects.
Impossible and paranoia-driven as it was for the sensation to burrow into his mind, David felt the taxidermied husks watching him, their glassy eyes judging him for selling his soul without putting up so much as a squeal of protest. A steady salary and an impressive pension had been all it took to turn in his membership. So few punks went the distance of truly living the lifestyle and setting an example for the next generation, so why the hell should he be singled out among the thousands of others who had made similar choices? Adulthood had brought new priorities, fresh challenges.
As much as he hated to admit it, he missed his records, sold long before they were worth anything beyond sentimentality. After the Great Sonic Cleansing of 2033, vinyl had become so rare in the remaining states that he’d be lucky if he could spot an album in a museum, protected by multiple armed guards. Even then, it’d be something vapid like Bon Jovi or Culture Club rather than Christian Death or The Dicks. He missed his homemade mix tapes as well, each carefully crafted to provide the perfect soundtrack to a day of skateboarding or a night of hard partying. They were likely taking up space in a landfill now. More than anything, though, he missed being on stage, microphone clutched in hand, sharing sweat with the crowd that screamed along to his lyrics with more conviction than he could have ever mustered.
He closed his eyes, ran his hands across his fresh buzz cut. Things change, forever in flux. He couldn’t recall the precise moment when he’d accepted that notion as law. Time had claimed him as its slave.
A few moments passed, and Jimmy returned. He handed David a mason jar half filled with a piss-colored liquid. David sniffed it, made sure.
“I think you’ll dig this,” Jimmy said. “It’s hard stuff. Swallow, don’t savor.”
David nodded, funneled the drink down his gullet. A cleansing, flavorless burn that temporarily blinded him. He hacked uncontrollably, half-expecting a lung to detach and fly out of his mouth.
“Yep,” he said, wiping his lips, “that’s what I was hoping for.”
Jimmy laughed. “Killer stuff, huh?”
David looked at his empty jar, then set it down on a nearby table. He eyed Jimmy. “You’re not joining me?”
“Nope. I quit a few months ago. And then a few weeks ago. And then again a few days ago. Hey, I’m tryin’ at least. Success isn’t always the point.”
David nodded. Been there, failed that. “So why taxidermy? And be real with me. I scanned an interview with you in some chipzine a while ago called…shit what was it called?”
“Do Punks Dream of Black Light Sheep?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Look, I know a bullshitter when I see one because I’m king of the bullshitters. You don’t seem like the type to take on a hobby like this. Home brewing, maybe, but stuffing empty corpses? Come on…what’s your real motivation here? And don’t tell me it’s only ‘art’ because that’s just piling new crap on top of the old crap.”
Jimmy’s face went fox. “Hey, let’s get this straight. I didn’t invite you here for an interrogation.”
David’s teeth tingled, as if his beverage had penetrated the enamel and was now wetting the nerves. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
Jimmy slapped him on the back, laughing. “Damn. Lighten up, man. I’m just fucking with you.”
David grunted. “Okay, well why did you bring me here, then? I can only assume it’s because of my past and—”
“Bingo. I find out Davey Kross from The Copulation Police lives in my town and I’m not going to offer him a sneak preview of my life’s work? Yeah, right. A no-brainer.”
“I haven’t thought about those days in a really, really long time.” A lie masked as humility.
“Dude, I saw you guys in Bakersfield back in, like, 2029. One of my first shows ever. I was just a wee little shit. Man, it was killer. Massive. I lost a tooth at that gig. Reunion tour, but still…”
Bakersfield. Former home base for The Copulation Police. Nothing left of the city now. Or the entire state of California. Not for several years. The Nostradamus-worshipping crackpots had been right after all. Nevada had become a hotspot of oceanfront properties.
“So you’re a true diehard fan, I guess.”
“Fuck yeah I am. I honestly didn’t think you’d come when I sent the invite.” Jimmy turned away, motioned to David to leave the first room. “Glad you did, though.”
David couldn’t take his eyes off the displays as they entered the next room. So many legends lost to time, preserved here for posterity. Jayne County. Keith Morris. Don Bolles. Jerry Only. Kathleen Hanna. Screaming Mad George. The list went on. The ultimate who’s who of punk rock history. The loved and the hated and those in between.
“Pretty good collection, huh?” Jimmy nudged David with his elbow. “Still missing one or two special surprises to make it perfect, but I’m almost done. I’ll be ready just in time for the official opening.”
“Hey, so I’m not trying to be rude or anything,” David said. “This really is pretty incredible, but…”
“Aw, man. Always a ‘but,’ isn’t there?”
“…but what’s the point? Is there a point?”
Jimmy beamed, a joker’s grin. “Can’t keep any secrets from you, huh? Okay, you know what? Screw it. I’ll tell you everything. Might as well. Time bomb’s tickin’, and at this point, I’ve got nothing to lose.”
David’s head felt like a fish tank that hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. He’d been overworked lately, overstressed. Too much action. And too much tedious paperwork. Maybe time to get on the wagon and stay there. He did his best to shake off the sensation, promised himself a nice hot bath tonight, followed by a solid seven hours of sleep mode. Turn off his brain and take no calls.
“Alright,” Jimmy said, “so you’re going to have to suspend your disbelief a little bit, but just trust me, dude.”
“So all of the taxidermy stuff. It’s totally legit. Took a lot of trial and error to get it right. Like, years and years. I learned a lot from the old guard. They were working on this project even before I joined up. I don’t know if you know this, but human skin doesn’t preserve as well as other animals.”
“Pretty sure I’ve scanned that somewhere before.”
Jimmy’s beady eyes somehow became beadier. His voice dropped to a whisper, as if someone might be eavesdropping from the next room. Recording. Taking notes. “The truth is…and keep this between you and me, but not all of these punks I’ve got here are the real deal. I mean, they’re real people. For sure. Just not all of them are the people you think they are. Not technically. Some of them are really solid lookalikes.”
“Hm. Okay. Makes sense. I thought something was a little off. Some of these date back to the 70s. You weren’t even born then.”
“Shit, man, I wasn’t even sperm in my daddy’s donger until the turn of the century made it well into its teens. But here’s the thing—the bodies—the shells, they might not all be authentic, but the souls are. One-hundred percent bona fide. Transferred and secured into their forever homes.”
“Wait—what? Souls? I’m not sure I follow.”
“Okay, so Mick—my partner. The guy I said never made it back from Japan? Anyway, he figured out a way to extract and preserve the essence of each person’s…I don’t know…raw talent I guess? Some assholes still think punk’s just a bunch of noise, but I’ve got a firm finger for them and they know where they can stick it.” Jimmy cackled, a little too long for David’s comfort. It made his head throb even harder.
David stared at Jimmy blankly. He wanted to kick his own ass for wasting so much time with this loser. He could be curled up on his couch right now, sucking on synthetic root beer barrels, scanning the latest chip of Shepherds & Dobermans Monthly.
“Look man,” Jimmy continued. “It’s not a soul soul. Not really. Religion ain’t punk, right? It’s just what we started calling it. Mick left notes behind. Thank Biafra. But whatever the hell it was that drove the musicians to write and play the songs they did, that’s what Mick honed in on. And all he had to do was keep it bottled up until he needed it. Here’s the real kicker though: didn’t matter that they were dead. See, Mick was crafty enough to go grave digging once he figured out how the magic worked. The trick. Fuck it man. Let’s be real. The science. If the corpse was still there and more or less intact, which it almost always was—he told me once about a desecration incident with Ian Curtis’s grave. Not pretty. Point is, if the corpse was still there, so was this alleged ‘soul.’ Fucking wild, right?”
Jimmy’s words blurred into a slur in David’s head. “Hey, do you, uh…is there somewhere I can sit down? Maybe I need to hit the bathroom. I’m feeling kinda dizzy.”
“Sure thing, my man. Follow me.” Jimmy licked his sandblasted lips, then turned and walked off. David trudged behind, and Jimmy led him to a small, barren room. “Warned ya that stuff was potent.”
“Just spread out there.” Jimmy pointed to a caved-in twin mattress. “Hope you enjoyed the tour, bud. It’ll all be over soon.”
David stumbled into the room, hand braced against the wall, his eyes adjusting. “Wha? Wha you mean?”
Next to the mattress—a table. Tools stacked neatly atop it. Scalpel. Hack saw. Awl. Caliper. Surgical gloves. Staple gun. Scissors. More items David couldn’t identify, intoxicated or not.
David’s chest tightened. So did Jimmy’s face.
“What a chump,” Jimmy said, grabbing an apron off a hook on the door and wrapping it around himself. “Coming here all alone. Didn’t they train you proper in the academy?”
“I don’t—” He tried to will himself to run, charge at Jimmy and tackle him, but his legs went marshmallow.
“I know what you are…what you became. Fucking traitor. Scum-sucking pig. You make me sick.” He spat at David’s feet. A green, viscous mess.
David locked eyes with Jimmy. The realization smacked him. He tried to hold out his hands but couldn’t lift them. “No. Wait. Please.”
“Collection’s almost complete.”
The door slammed shut. The room and his whole world went black.
It’s beyond dark on a Saturday in mid-October, and the night people have come out to play. The daylight’s too bright and they’ve slept too late, but they’re here to drink and celebrate opening night. The Big Reveal. The soiree to end all soirees.
Every faction of punk imaginable in attendance. Rigid skinheads arm-in-arm with wispy goths. Clean-cut straight edgers joining forces with filth-caked crusties who have dragged themselves from the gutter. True unity achieved in the year 2045.
A holographic sign accompanies each exhibit, meticulously labeled to ensure all attendees are aware of who they’re gawking at. One display in particular has attracted a considerable crowd. He looks authoritative, almost alive. Some guests hawk loogies on him, some pour their drinks over his head. And it’s okay. It’s allowed. This is what they paid their admission for. Jimmy is right alongside them, egging them on.
The host looks on proudly. The final piece to his puzzle, finally in place. Adorned in a crisp, dark blue uniform, a silver badge shining from his lapel. A crude mustache drawn on his upper lip. The holograph sign reads:
DAVEY KROSS - THE COPULATION POLICE
THE ULTIMATE SELLOUT - PUNK TURNED COP
Chad Stroup is the author of the novels Secrets of the Weird (Grey Matter Press) and Sexy Leper (Bizarro Pulp Press) and the comic series Hag (American Gothic Press). He has published several short stories in magazines and anthologies such as Shock Totem, Worst Laid Plans, Chew on This, Forbidden Futures, Chiral Mad 4, Lost Films, and Splatterlands, and his dark poetry has appeared in all volumes of the HWA Poetry Showcase. Stroup received his MFA in Fiction from San Diego State University. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter @chadxstroup.
"I Am the Taxidermist" is brought to you in part by C.M. Saunders and his collection X4!
The fourth volume of short stories features ten slices of visceral horror and dark fiction taken from a variety of magazines and anthologies, as well as extensive notes and original artwork by Bram Stoker Award-nominated Greg Chapman.