Ban(ne)d Book Club: Shellshag on Chelsea Martin’s “At The End of This Story The Door Will Open…”

Lizzie Plaugic

When I met up with Shellshag in their Greenpoint studio, members John Driver (Shell) and Jen Shagawat (Shag) were sitting on the concrete floor, embroiled in a Weird Al music video marathon. Weird Al’s parody of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (redubbed “Tacky”) streamed across the screen as Jen, John, and two of their friends discussed Yankovic’s unique staying power, especially given that he makes family-friendly comedy albums.

Shellshag are no mom and pop duo jamming out by the kiddie pool, but their distance from Weird Al is not so great, especially in terms of heartfelt quirkiness. You might know the duo from their live set-up: two microphone stands joined in an X-formation, Jen on drums and John on guitar, standing and facing each other. Jen and John have been putting out albums since 2007, including their latest, Shellshag Forever, on New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records. Their songs—like “Sweet Hoodie” (a story about young love told via Shell’s old sweatshirt) and “I Love You Anyway” (about looking past annoying habits)—are tongue-in-cheek, but grounded in romantic purity.

For this edition of Ban(ne)d Book Club, I chose Chelsea Martin’s short story “At the End of This Story the Door Will Open and Under Eight Seconds Will Have Passed”, in her collection The Really Funny Thing About Apathy. Written as a linear thought stream, the story’s narrator experiences a fit of uncertainty when someone knocks on her door. I figured Shellshag’s unself-conscious narrative style would contrast well with Martin’s cerebral, self-conscious fiction. At the end of our conversation, Jen said, “Throughout the whole story, I was thinking, why would [you] choose this [story] for us? ‘Face To Face’? It made me think of the visual of the song, and a possible barrier. Which is kind of what Shellshag has avoided with the joint mic stand and standing set-up. Breaking down that barrier.”

I think the story sparks this idea of there being a vast number of possible outcomes, but you can chart them and sometimes get to one conclusion.

Yes. Yeah, or where you wanna be. For me, the first thing it said, the title, “at the end of the story the door will open,” it reminded me of something my dad said when I was growing up which is, “When one door closes, another one opens,” and I didn’t realize until I read this that that’s a philosophy that I abide by. When one thing doesn’t work out for me, it’s pretty easy to be like, “What’s next?” And then I started thinking about the paranoia in the story, could it be this person, could it be that person, which kind of happened to me today. A couple of old friends came over that I hadn’t seen in awhile, there was knocking on the door, I didn’t know who they were, so this story came to my mind as I was going to the door.

Whenever someone knocks on my door and I don’t know who it is, I always imagine it’s like the exterminator or something.

You do? That’s hysterical. In this building I always think it’s the postman, because we usually get the mail for the whole building. Every time someone knocks, first I get paranoid and I hide any “evidence” of anything, then I go to the door and it’s usually the postman or a friend, fortunately.

So do you have a process that you go through before you answer the door?

Kind of, because even when you came today, you didn’t think to go through the garage door, so when that’s open and someone knocks, I’m really weirded out, ’cause I assume they’ve already heard us.

Normally, ’cause it’s a different space than the places we’ve normally lived, I get very paranoid when someone knocks on the door. People stop by to do auditions for the people next door, and our neighbors are really interesting and everything in this whole complex crosses paths throughout the day.

And the title too, you mentioned, over the course of all these things going through her head, only eight seconds passes, which I didn’t even realize until I had read it a few times.

I thought about that again at the end. ’Cause the first time I read it, I had a few thoughts, and then it’d been a few weeks so I read it again. And I thought, “Hmm, this eight seconds thing, it’s really weird that she’s so fixated on time, and time in general.” I even had to stop and think how long eight seconds really was. That’s a really long time to get the door. It’s kind of a long time to wait. And once she starts writing about it, she’s horrified. There’s a little bit of positivity in there, but mostly it’s like, how’s she gonna deal with the situation. She’s definitely hoping certain people come to the door, and I relate to that.

And there’s a lot of social paranoia.

Yes. Which I loved, and I loved how she wrote about it—I don’t wanna call it “modern,” ’cause it sounds really cheesy. But just [how Martin wrote about] everyday texting… Especially when you have something going on a bit more metaphysically, it’s interesting that [the narrator’s thoughts] are still connected to the internet. Especially when you have something going on a bit more metaphysically, it’s interesting that it’s connected to the internet.

There was one line I really liked, which was, “Maybe every event is extremely unlikely, given the probability of any one thing happening.”

Yes! Such a heavy thing, I could barely wrap my mind around it. That one really messed with my head, because I have this feeling—and it might not even pertain, it might be two totally separate thoughts—but I just have this feeling that things keep repeating themselves. I don’t know if I believe in past lives, but I get this feeling that if I keep dying and living, you and I would do this again, and have this conversation in some shape or form and I just think, “Even if I die, I’m going to see everyone I love again, and everything that’s happened in the past will happen again.” And we all kind of already know each other, like that’s how we hooked up now. Does that make sense? It’s kind of the opposite of what she’s saying.

Yeah, whereas she’s saying that it’s very unlikely, you think each outcome is very likely.

Right, ’cause when she wrote that I knew what she meant, but for me it’s more of a separation with technology—the door. In my generation, we didn’t have cell phones when I was younger, and we just had to stand there, and be awkward. And that’s kind of what she’s talking about, but she’s coming from a more modern perspective, and in that the gray area could be the technology. She only mentions a couple times, but it stuck out to me and I wanted to instantly know who this writer was, because she’s very psychedelic, very deep. So I have the total opposite feeling, but I also know exactly what she means, because if I really think about it, there’s not even enough people to fit in this one hand that I could possibly meet, or that I would possibly want to meet. And that’s really always in the forefront of your mind, that it really is a one-in-a-million shot that you even meet someone you like. So in that respect it was fun to think about. But I hope even though it’s one in a million, that it happens a million times.

Speaking of one-in-a-million, she kind of has a small obsession with the movies, and the idea that everything works out in the end in the movies. But her style is kind of pushing against that.

Well, what I related to with that was, with Shell, he loves romantic comedies. Like, deeply, crying, and for me they’re kind of more funny. But he’s gotten me to be into some movies that maybe I wouldn’t be, and that over-sensationalized feeling that comes with it. You’re lucky if you have [it] once in a lifetime, but it’s so unlikely. The feeling of the end of a movie is something we all want, but it doesn’t exist. And we do feel that deeply, but it’s also scary. She talks about the vulnerability of it.

Right, if this story were a movie, the person behind the door would be the boy she talks about, or someone else who’s gonna change her life, but in reality it’s just the exterminator or the postman.

Yes, it’s the postman or the exterminator. But all those things in your mind, you know who you think it is.

Another line I really liked was, “People believe you if you tell them something unflattering about yourself.”

Yeah, I’m kind of embarrassed to say this out loud, but it seems to me, there’s a language now, where you can say one thing and mean another. So by saying that, I’m a pretty confident person, but I do find myself saying to friends and stuff like, “I’m the worst,” when I’m telling the truth. I’m not trying to be cool, but it’s a way of playing it cool by being playful.

I then asked Jen to tell me what her reaction would be to each of the following people at her door:

Michelle Obama.

Just wow.

Your next door neighbor.

Bummer.

A teenager.

Cool.

Lana Del Rey.

I don’t know who that is.

George Washington.

That one would just be like, “What happened?”

Joe Steinhardt.

I would just jump for joy and hug him so much and just be happy he was born.

Morrissey.

Out of respect, and because I think he would think it was funny, I would probably get down and bow. With Chris Gethard in mind. Also cause I think a weird bow would fuck up his head, and he might be dark enough to have a sense of humor about it.

Shellshag’s Shellshag Forever is out now on Don Giovanni.

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