Part two of “Defending Champs”

And the other half of the story:

*****

            Palowsky kicked his cleat at a stubborn clod of dirt on the pitcher’s mound as he waited for the Padres’ manager to make his decision. He figured this would happen – why send up a batter Palowsky had struck out once and got to ground out the other time? All that remained was which pinch hitter would step up.

            Cropper tossed the ball his way and encouraged him to keep his arm warm with a few pitches in the interim. Palowsky took long, slow strides, exaggerated really, trying in vain to put the thoughts of this potential perfect game out of his mind.

            Here they stood, the Waves and the Padres, one the previous year’s World Series winner turned last-place team, the other falling short of playing .500 ball on account of a rash of injuries to key players. And the crowd in the Miami stands? Certainly no distraction to Palowsky as they were clumped here and there with long swaths of seats in between – some of them appeared to be otherwise occupied, as if the game were mere background noise to a book club discussion or chess match. And Palowsky watched Jose Pullman, a rugged former DH traded to the Padres a few months back from the White Sox, walk out of the dugout and tap his cleats menacingly with his sepia-toned bat.

            He’d never pitched against Pullman – he’d need to rely on Cropper even more than before, Cropper with his five years in the American League with the Mariners. He stared in at his catcher, felt a brush of cool air sweep across the infield, and caught Cropper’s first signal. – curveball, inside. Palowsky nodded and started his wind-up, retaining the long strides from just moments before. Was it tiredness setting in? Or anxiety at facing the unfamiliar?

            He curled the ball as it left his fingers and watched as Pullman prepared to swing, cracking the ball hard and high – and foul, so foul that Palowsky guessed the guy hit it out of the park, right by the opening gates.

            A thin film of sweat rose to a sheen on Palowsky’s forehead and upper lip, but he avoided wiping it off and caught Cropper’s toss-back without looking. Pullman dug in and seemed to crowd a few inches closer to the plate. Cropper signaled curveball, but Palowsky shook him off. Frustrated, Cropper signaled for a change-up, though he seemed reluctant, almost shrugging as if to say, ‘Can’t you trust me here?’ With barely a hint of a nod, Palowsky wound up again, nice and slow, but bearing down at the end of his pitch as if he were bringing the heat from earlier.

            Pullman didn’t seem to buy it; he started his swing, his eyes fixed towards the outfield where he presumed the ball would go in just a moment. The pitch looped in slow and sneaky, though, and in a few short seconds, Cropper was getting a new ball from the ump and Pullman’s count stood at 0 and 2, courtesy of a pair of booming foul balls.

            Instead of tossing him the ball like usual, Cropper trotted out to the mound, mask up and off his face for a moment.

            “So,” he started, massaging the ball with one thumb.

            “So,” Palowsky returned, a thin grin forming on his face.

            “This guy wants to eat you alive. He’s breathing fire up there.”

            “Good to know.” Palowsky paused, licking his lips. “’Cause I don’t think I can strike him out. Maybe next time I pitch him, but not tonight.”

            Cropper looked his ace level in the eyes and nodded. “That’s what I wanted to hear. I figured you must be getting tired.” He gestured with the ball for a moment as the head ump began clamoring for them to get back to the matter at hand. Both men nodded again and Copper pivoted, re-masked and shot back to his spot behind home plate.

            As Palowsky gazed 66 and a half feet away and took Cropper’s second signal of the inning and the night, he recalled being on this same mound about a year before, winning the deciding game of the Series and being carried off the field by his teammates. Ridiculous, really, like a cheesy made-for-TV movie or something. Here he was, a year later, pitching what would be the best game of his career, and would it make the news? Nothing more than a 30-second blurb on Miami local; maybe another 30 seconds on Sports Center, but all couched in terms of a disappointing and frustrating season.

            He wound up, his arm feeling like it had extended half a foot – maybe more – as he slung the ball in much the same way that he’d thrown his change-up. As before, Pullman readied his swing almost immediately; as it had done earlier in the inning, the ball sank, sank, sank, then met the tip of the bat and launched high in the air over the infield.

            Palowsky turned and watched his shortstop, some new kid fresh out of high school, call for it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Cropper at home plate, his mask thrown off, his face expectant. It was over. It was all over.

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Published in: on September 11, 2010 at 11:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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Part one of “Defending Champs”

Here goes – new story, installment one of two.

*****

            Joey Palowsky stood a little hunched over on the mound, the ball firm in his grip, Nicky Lopez, the first batter of this top half of the ninth glaring back at him from the batter’s box.  This is it, Joey thought, as he nodded at the catcher’s signal for a curve, inside, and started his wind-up.  He saw the batter relax for the briefest moment, confident that the pitch was too high, when at the last possible moment it snuck back into the strike zone.  The beanpole of an ump behind home let out a bellow, and Joey Palowsky was one step closer – one step closer to another strike-out (nine already in the game), one step closer to winning this final game of the season against the San Diego Padres, one stop closer to pitching every pitcher’s dream, a perfect game.

            Had this happened during the previous season, it might’ve been just what he needed to garner a few more votes and win the National League Cy Young award.  As it was, who was Palowsky to complain?  His team, the still-new expansion Miami Waves, won the World Series in just his fourth year in the majors, in no small part because of his 20-win season.  When he slid that World Series ring onto his finger and felt its weight that brisk October night one year before, he assumed it would just be the first of many.

            As he finished mowing down Nicky Lopez in four pitches, his arm tingled slightly – he hadn’t thrown a complete game since early June, but he wasn’t about to show his manager Teddy Ulrich any signs that he needed to be pulled.  No, this game was his.

            The next batter, Lane Taylor, gritted his teeth as Palowsky went through his customary drill.  Catcher’s signal, nod; left leg brought up to the body, left arm curling around like a slingshot; body hurtling forward, off the mound, ball released like a firecracker about to explode.  He’d struck out Taylor twice already tonight, but this time his catcher, recent Waves acquisition Ben Cropper, signaled change-up and Palowsky grinned ever so slightly.  Most of the game it had been all heat and he’d lunged after every pitch; with this one, not even breaking 80 m.p.h., Palowsky watched Taylor watch the pitch loll along and plop into Cropper’s mitt for a called strike.

            “What the – ?” Palowsky heard Taylor shout as Cropper tossed the ball back to the mound.  He couldn’t help but smile at this little game of chess, toying with the expectations of each batter and then trying to outwit each one a little bit differently.  That’s what he’d always loved about pitching, from as far back as Little League.  It’s what raised eyebrows the previous season when this unknown – still a young guy at 24 – broke away to lead his team in wins, leaving more than his share of batters staring at called third strikes or swinging at junk he’d convinced them was worth their time and attention.

            After they took home their World Series trophy, Palowsky’s agent angled for him to get a more lucrative contract – a no-brainer after winning two games in the Series, really, but the Waves’ front office didn’t tell them about the other negotiations they were conducting, negotiations that led to this championship team losing its two best hitters, sharpest right-hand starter, top reliever, and two of their utility players.  In short, the Waves had a fire sale, and before Christmas came, Joey Palowsky discovered that he was a member of a team of strangers, journeymen, minor-league hopefuls, and, overall, the least expensive crew an organization could field.  No warning, no hints – and no way out of his recently renegotiated and much sweeter contract.  It was a long winter in Miami leading up to spring training.

            Palowsky repeated his first pitch, surprising the batter yet again: change-ups in the ninth inning were not what Lane Taylor was looking for, and before he knew it he was behind in the count 0 and 2 without having moved the bat off of his shoulder. 

            Now Cropper signaled for a sinker, a pitch Palowsky rarely threw and hadn’t thrown at all tonight.  He was about to shrug it off but then thought better of it.  Cropper’s taken me this far, he figured, as he curled his long fingers around the ball and began his wind-up.  The ball flew through the air just as the two change-ups had, barely maintaining a clear arc.  Palowsky saw Taylor’s eyes go wide, as if perhaps he thought that now he knew what to do with the bat and the ball, and that poor man swung with all the might his 220 lb. frame allowed.  A third of the way into what Taylor surely hoped would be a game-tying home run swing, the ball seemed to disregard laws of gravity and basic common sense, dipping a full six inches and squirming like a snake into Cropper’s mitt.  Taylor did all he could to remain standing; he couldn’t maintain his grip on the bat, which found its way to the first base line, stopping a few feet short of the Padres’ base coach.

            Cropper stood, threw the ball to the third baseman for a circuit, calling out, “Two down, boy, two down.  Let’s take her through, Big Paw.”

            Palowsky smiled at this nickname, Cropper’s invention of just a couple weeks ago.  Anytime during the previous season, he would’ve lumped Cropper in with a long list of good players he’d had the privilege to play with.  This year, though, talented as Cropper was, Palowsky saw this catcher as more of a reminder of all of those good players, of which there were so few in this inauspicious season of defending their championship.

            He didn’t blame his teammates; probably close to half of them never should’ve been sent up to the majors this soon.  The team’s farm system was a shambles, but it sure was easy calling up these young, untested guys and paying them the league minimum.

            Meanwhile, the Miami sportswriters went after Palowsky – for them he symbolized the arrogance and the greed of the Waves’ organization.  He was an easy target as the primary holdover from that championship season and he became more and more of one as he began this new season seemingly much less brilliant.  (Truth be told, anyone who looked closely could see that his ERA was about the same – but this new Waves team only scored about half as often as they had as champions.)  Palowsky crawled his way to a 10-12 record, still the team’s best, but for the money he was being paid?  The writers cried foul and Palowsky sometimes agreed with them.  Everybody loves a winner, he thought as he sat by his locker after more than a couple of 1-0 losses.

Published in: on September 9, 2010 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Part four of “That Other Guy”

The last installment – here you go.

*****

            In the days and weeks that followed, we just tried to wake up from the nightmare, but had no luck.  Jim Martin awarded The Other Guy with the prize, consisting of a two-record deal with IRS and some tour dates opening for the label’s more established acts, but Gerry’s status left us in limbo.

            “We can’t go on without him,” X said, almost in a whisper one day as we made a half-hearted attempt to practice as a threesome.

            “What?  Just a couple months ago, you said – ” I began.

            “I was wrong.  You were right.  This is his band.”  Harrison thumped the bass drum twice in agreement.

            We never got the full story on Gerry’s arrest.  Some said it was just one count of possession, but others insisted there were a couple counts of distribution, too.  Phone calls to the Rittle house didn’t help, either; no one answered, and when we drove by to see if we could talk to his mom, the windows were dark and a ‘For Sale’ sign leaned up against the tattered mailbox.

            “He saved our asses, y’know?” Harrison said.  He wasn’t really looking for an answer, I could tell, but I couldn’t just sit there and be quiet about it.

            “Uh huh.”  We’d been through this several times, but talking it over wasn’t bringing Gerry back. It was graduation day, and a few weeks before, I’d finally called Jim Martin to tell him that we couldn’t accept the award.

            “What?  That’s crazy.”

            “Well, yeah,” I said, feeling a wave of exhaustion hit me.

            “Mind if I ask why?”

            “No, it’s fine.  We broke up.”  True, to a point.

            “Oh.  That’s too bad.  You guys had a great sound.  Especially that drummer of yours.”

            “Thanks, Jim.”

            And that was that.

***** 

            Now here I am, twenty-five years later, listening to music that every now and then reminds me of those fleeting days – just six short months – when we played shows and were on the verge of getting a record deal, a possibility so far beyond our original hopes that we never even spoke of it.  Of course my students have no idea that I’ve ever been in a band, though they know I love music from the strains of R.E.M., The Clash, or The Smiths emanating from my room between classes.

            It is near the end of May and school has just let out for the day.  I’m surprised to see an e-mail pop up; this is my school account, and I don’t recognize the address of the sender.  I open it, curious:

Well, I found you.  Should’ve looked there first, I guess.  It’s been awhile.

I’ve got something you’ll be interested in seeing – and hearing.  Meet me tonight after our show – I’ve got a ticket in your name at the box office. 

Harrison

            Holy crap.  I’d seen a listing in the paper that The Taser Lites were playing with a couple other bands at the 9:30 Club in downtown D.C.  They’d sold out the last three times they’d been in town, so I didn’t even try to get tickets this time and didn’t even think twice that I might see Harrison Winfield.

            I go to the show in jeans and a t-shirt, feeling like I can’t possibly fit in at a ska show as a balding redhead in his early forties.  The Taser Lites play a tight set: everyone in the crowd dances for the full hour and twenty minutes, and I feel twin emotions of jealousy and pride – jealous that I’m not up there playing, proud that my old friend has still got it.

            After the show, I wait outside under the copper-colored streetlights, playing spectator to the spectators as they wait to get CDs and t-shirts signed by band members.  Harrison taps me on the shoulder, smiles, and gives me a bear hug, looking remarkably like he had when we played the festival: shaved head, white tank top, gym shorts and running sneakers.  The wrinkles in his face are the only change.

            “C’mon,” he says, and we walk back to an empty dressing room where we sit, just looking at each other for a moment.  He takes out a tape and places it on the table in front of us.  “This is what I promised you.  Go ahead, look at it.”

            I pick it up, confused.  I see the names of songs scrawled in someone’s hasty cursive: “Mindbender,” “Blackout,” “Run Like Hell” – and then it hits me.

            “You – how did you?”

            Harrison calms me down and pops the tape into an old beat-up cassette player.  As we listen, he explains how we’d forgotten about the recording of our set after the festival, focused as we were on Gerry and breaking up the band.  Apparently, it didn’t occur to Jim Martin to send us the tape, either.

            “So how’d you get it?”

            “Well, I’ve stayed in the game, right?”  He spreads his hands out as if to indicate that this dressing room somehow sums up the music industry, or at least his experience of it.  “Jim Martin – you remember, the guy who ran our last show? – well he stayed in it, too.  He organized a festival a few months back up in Bethesda, and we played it.  He saw me and said he recognized me but couldn’t remember why.  I’d forgotten about him, but eventually we figured out that we met at the ’82 festival in Fairfax after I mentioned Gerry stagediving and Paula Paula getting the record deal.”

            “Oh yeah.”  I hadn’t heard about them in over two decades.  Thoughts of Leah Andrews flutter in my mind.

            “So anyway, Martin remembers he’s got this tape.  It’s in great condition, and he gives it to me a week later.”

            “Well, that’s cool.”  I smile, happy to see my old friend.

            “But that ain’t all.”

            “Huh?”  Now I’m confused again.

            “He’s planning on putting out a compilation CD this summer, kind of a throwback thing to commemorate some of the local scenes – ours in Fairfax, a couple up in suburban Maryland.”

            “And?”

            “Well, he wants to put some of our songs on it.  But he can’t if he doesn’t know where we are.”

            “Wow.  But you and me only makes two.  What about X?  What about . . . ?”  I don’t even say his name.

            “X and I have been trading e-mails for a week or so.  He’s in. He’ll be back from Japan in mid-June.”

            “And . . .Gerry?”

            “You won’t believe me.”

            “Try me.”

            “He’s been here.  Came back after the year he spent in juvenile hall.  Lucky for him they busted him when he was still seventeen, so they had to try him as a minor.  He got out, came back here, got an apartment, started a new life.”

            “No more drugs?”

            “I don’t know, man.”  Harrison seems as amazed to tell me the story as he’d been to hear it himself.  “He’s in Fairfax is all I know.”

            “Holy God.”  I pause, listening to my seventeen-year old voice try to sing Rudy Lewis’s vocal line on “Up on the Roof.’  “So what do we do now?”

            “I think you should call him.  He’ll take it best from you.”  As soon as he says it, I know he’s right, but I feel a profound urge to do nothing, to let Gerry Rittle live his life and not be bothered by his past.  I leave Harrison that night promising to call our old bass player, though, the tape now in my hands.

            Sure enough, Gerry’s name is in the phone book, and apparently he’s married to some lady name of Rita.  Rita Rittle, I think.  Poor woman.  I look at the address and recognize that it belongs in a neighborhood where we had played several basement shows.  I stare at the phone number and then my phone for a few minutes, unsure how I want to proceed.  Will he even want to talk to me?  What will he say after so many years?

            “Rittle residence,” I hear a voice say on the other line, a pleasant woman’s voice.

            “Um, may I speak with Gerry please?”

            “Gerald,” I hear as she cups the phone with one hand.  Gerald?

            “Speaking,” he says, and I freeze for a moment.

            “Um, Gerry?”

            “Yes?”

            “This is Danny Kramer.”  I pause, letting this name sink in.  “From high school.”  That’s all I can think of to say for an intro, and the silence that follows seems interminable.

            “Yeah, hey,” he says, and I’m immediately regretting having called him.  “Long time no see.”

            “Exactly, exactly,” I continue, hoping to swing the momentum to the matter at hand.  “Say, I just saw Harrison the other night, Harrison Winfield?”

            “Uh huh.”

            “Well, Gerry, I got some good news for you.  Really for all of us.”  I realize when I say us that it’s the first time I’ve referred to That Other Guy in over two decades.  “But I’d like to deliver the news in person, if you don’t mind.”

            “Not at all.  Meet you at the diner in an hour?”

            My heart leaps for a moment.  “Absolutely,” I say before he can change his mind and I lose whatever it is that has just come together in the last two minutes.

            We meet at the diner in Fairfax, Tastee 29, a historical landmark incidentally, and when I see him, I must admit, I’m impressed.  He looks good, trim and fit, though sad in the eyes.  But then I think back and realize he always had sad eyes.  We shake hands, order dinner and the conversation starts slowly like before.

            “So you said something about good news?” Gerry asks, and I show him the tape, recount the story Harrison told me about tracking down Jim Martin, and he listens, nodding every now and then, sipping his coke.

            “The tape, huh?” he says, and he looks at it like it’s a museum artifact, turning it over in his hands several times.  He looks at me with those eyes again.  “I haven’t thought about that day in a long time, Danny.”

            I don’t know what to say to that.  I want to ask him what happened that day, why he dived the way he did; I want to thank him, knowing as I do how that dive saved Harrison and me from almost certain bodily harm.  But I can’t get any of those words out.

            “What does this Martin guy wanna do with the songs again?”

            This topic I can talk about easily.  “He needs our permission to use the songs we played that day on the compilation he’s making.  It’s gonna be for the early ‘80s Fairfax scene.”

            Gerry sits still for a moment, contemplating this possibility.  “Compilation, huh?” he asks, sliding the tape back over to me.  I nod.  “You wanna know something?  I tried real hard to forget that day.  I tried to forget those six months.  For awhile there I told myself it was the worst time of my life, getting hooked on speed and everything, watching my mom . . .”  He waves his hand in the air for a moment, not finding the words to convey what had happened to his mother.  “Tried real hard to forget you.  And Harrison and X.  The whole band.  Tried real hard.”

            Again I feel at a loss, then find myself saying, “I’m sorry, Gerry.”

            He looks down, perhaps not wanting an apology; I don’t know.  His voice begins as a whisper as he says, “Tell Jim Martin I’m in too.  And let me know when they release that CD.”

            “Sure thing.”  We sit in silence for a moment, and the regret I felt earlier is fading slowly.

            “Y’know what?”  He lifts his eyes to meet mine.  “Rita asked who you were when I got off the phone, and I told her you were a salesman.”  He holds his gaze for a moment, then breaks into deep laughter; I join him.

            “So did I make the sale?”

            He just laughs some more, promising me he’ll have to have me over some time for dinner, maybe when that CD comes out.

            I said at the beginning that this wasn’t going to be a reunion story, and now you might say I’m just an out and out liar, but I don’t think so.  That Other Guy didn’t reunite on stage – not ever.  The four of us are in touch with each other, which is new, and the CD came out to some acclaim.  One of the D.C. radio stations, K 93, played most of it on their local music show one Sunday night, and they even mentioned the four of us by name.  Jim Martin made sure we got a fair deal on royalties, but I’ll still be keeping my day job, as will X with the foreign service, and Gerry at the hardware store he manages.  Harrison keeps playing drums and staying young, our lifeline to the music world that That Other Guy never quite reached, all because our bass player, whose life was falling apart, took a leap that saved our lives – and his.

Published in: on September 7, 2010 at 4:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Part three of “That Other Guy”

Third installment – enjoy.

*****

            DIY.  These three letters were the shorthand for how most of the hardcore music scenes operated, partly out of serious conviction, partly out of simple necessity.  There were no big labels eager to have bands like ours record for them or tour with their corporate banners hanging behind us.  We were left to fend for ourselves, which inevitably led to a combination of the wildly exciting and the marginally competent – but it was all on our terms, so no complaints.  Do it yourself.  Simple – you don’t like something, make your own way, chart your own course, blaze your own path, and so on.  Within certain scenes, though, you’d find a strange snobbishness.  “You’re too reggae,” some might say about a new group, or “You’re not loud enough.”  Didn’t make sense, really, and yet we were subject to that kind of response early on from some people who had been mainstays in the Fairfax scene.  Our having a black drummer?  Few really commented on it, mostly because Harrison was almost always the best musician in the room, but for some it didn’t fit the hardcore model that they somehow believed was the purest.  Our cover selections?  People spoke up about these, though our up-tempo versions silenced most of them.  Some of them may have even thought we were mocking the groups we were covering – that was probably Gerry’s intent, anyway – so they gave us a free pass.  That we were high school students?  This was our saving grace.  We were still innocents, supposedly unspoiled by the world of corporate music: we deserved our moment in the hardcore indie spotlight, such as it was.

            For the next two weeks, we practiced every day, paying little attention to the academic requirements of our final quarter of high school.  Some of us knew our fates for the fall: X was going to Scranton, a Jesuit college up in Pennsylvania; Harrison was off to Virginia State University, one of the few remaining all-black schools, where he’d received a full-ride for music.  I was still weighing my options: work a year, then go off to school somewhere far, far away, maybe even overseas, or stay local and go to George Mason, right there in Fairfax.  Gerry?  God only knew.  We certainly didn’t; I doubt he did either.

            During our practices, we went back and forth over our songs, trying to decide what our set list should be at the festival.

            “Why not just keep it the same?” Harrison asked, twirling a drum stick with the fingers on his left hand.  “It’s a good set.”

            “Maybe,” X said.  He turned the volume down on his guitar, seeming to weigh his words carefully.  “I’m just thinking there will be a lot of the same people at the festival who saw us play at Knott.”

            “So?  Screw them!” Gerry said.

            “Um . . . what?”  X held his hands out to his sides and examined Gerry as if the guy might need to be checked for rabies or ticks.

            “Any thoughts on what you wanna change?” I asked, more to redirect the conversation than anything.

            “How about switch up one of the covers?”

            “Which one?” Harrison said.

            “Doesn’t matter to me.”

            “What do you want to play instead?” I asked.

            X paused.  “ ‘Run Like Hell’.”

            “You mean Pink Floyd?” Gerry yelled.

            “Uh huh.”

            I stood there, convinced X was doing this just to piss off Gerry.  It was funny, too, because I knew X didn’t like Pink Floyd – actually, he hated them – so proposing one of their songs seemed strange.

            “Play it for us,” Harrison said, curious and moving behind his drum kit.  X did as he was told, turning up the volume on his guitar again, adding an effect or two, and then exploding the room with the song’s opening chords.  Ten seconds later, Harrison was adding the drum part, decidedly different from the one in the original: a little reggae on the verses, sped up on the choruses to a breakneck ska.  Gerry scowled the whole way through.

            X brought it to a close, nodding to Harrison in approval.

            “Well?” they asked in unison, looking squarely at me.

            “Two conditions.”  I crossed my arms.  “We drop ‘More Than a Feeling’.”

            Harrison sighed.  “Okay.”

            “And . . . you sing lead on ‘Run Like Hell’.”  I pointed at X, whose eyes and mouth formed perfect ovals.

            “But I’m not . . .”

            “Your back-up vocals are great,” I interrupted.

            Harrison did a little drum roll and hit the crash cymbal hard.  “Why not, man?”

            X was silent, but his silence was different than Gerry’s; his was all about making a decision, not stewing over some perceived injustice.  He absentmindedly strummed the opening chords of the Floyd song again.  “Okay,” he finally said.

            We practiced that song over and over, adding Gerry on back-up vocals, where he did surprisingly well given his loathing of Pink Floyd.  A week remained before the festival.

            In 1982, all over America the hardcore punk scenes were feeling strained.  There was the unavoidable issue of key figures dying – Gerry’s mentor Sid Vicious early among them, three years prior – but also the overall falling flat of the movement as a whole in the minds of the public.  On other fronts, the long-valued diversity of so many early punk scenes, where bills including The Ramones, Television, and The Talking Heads could exist, or Bad Brains playing down the block from Black Flag, seemed to be losing steam.  So far, our strange covers fit in fine, and Harrison’s presence behind the drum kit, big shaved-headed black guy that he was, didn’t make anyone think twice when we played someone’s basement.  But unbeknownst to us, things already had begun to change.

            Up until we started playing shows, the skinheads who were so ubiquitous in the Fairfax scene were just as their name stated – guys (and some girls) who shaved their heads as close to the skin as you could without bleeding.  It was a statement, of course, like everything else punk, and it boiled down to this basic idea: this is our way, and if you don’t like it, you know where you can get off.  But some movements from across the Atlantic Ocean were making their way around America now, and the skinheads were becoming more than just a bunch of punk kids with no hair and an interest in hardcore music.  There were the Oi boys, among others, declaring their allegiance to a new version of Hitler’s Nazi ideals, lacing up their steel-toed boots and summarily kicking the crap out of anyone who looked different: black, Hispanic, long hair – the list went on.

            That spring, I’d heard about some of these guys but figured we wouldn’t see much of them since we lived near D.C., with its majority black population.  Wrong again.  In fact, some of them had shown up at the Knott show to cheer on a band of their own boys, a trio called The Front, who Lyme Crane edged out for the second spot at the festival.  Apparently, this group of brownshirts had caused a ruckus by not merely jumping into the mosh pit, but mixing it up with the black kids who held sway with their skanking and pogoing.  The neo-Nazi skinheads, or Frontboys, as they called themselves, were escorted out right after their friends’ band played.  We never even saw what happened; we were backstage during the whole thing, and only found out the details from a couple of the guys in Lyme Crane.

*****

            Sid Vicious died on February 2, 1979, the middle of our freshman year of high school.  He’d been a member of the seminal British punk band The Sex Pistols for all of 11 months after replacing their original bassist Glen Matlock (the one who recorded with the group on their only major release, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols), followed by drug problems, prison time at Riker’s Island, a murder charge for the death of his one-time girlfriend Nancy Spungen, and then his own death by heroin overdose.  It was a busy couple of years for the young punk – and this was the guy that Gerry looked up to, idolized it seemed.  It was as if Gerry were oblivious to the central fact of this man’s life: barreling down the track, eyes closed, headed for his own destruction.  Then again, maybe he was well aware of the final chapter of Vicious’s life; maybe he figured his life was already moving down a similar track after he watched his parents’ ugly separation and divorce; maybe he saw something romantic about it all, something that neither Harrison, X, nor I could see.

*****

            The day finally came, and all of us were feeling nervous, packing and re-packing our gear in the van I borrowed from my parents.  Gerry looked like he had that night when his front lawn was littered with someone’s personal belongings (all his dad’s stuff, I found out later): jeans, black boots, black leather jacket, no shirt.

            “It’s gonna be 85 degrees out there, y’know that,” Harrison pointed out gently.

            Gerry grunted.  He looked like he hadn’t slept in a couple days, or eaten.

            X provided quite the counterpoint to Gerry’s disheveled look, wearing a white dress shirt, jet black jeans, a thin, black silk tie, and black dress shoes – and of course, the jet black sunglasses.  Harrison couldn’t believe that either, but just laughed as he repositioned his cymbals one last time.  He wore a white tank top, a pair of gym shorts, and running sneakers.

            “What, you gonna work out?” Gerry asked in a slurred voice, already sneering.

            “Yeah, yeah I am.”

            I gave no thought to my attire that morning and just wore my standard white t-shirt and jeans, with black Chuck Taylors – the same outfit I’d worn to bed the previous night, actually.

            When we arrived at the festival, we noticed half a dozen bands we’d either played with or seen perform in the last six months, all of them looking about as nervous as we felt.  Gerry didn’t make matters better, either, shouting out things like, “This is it, boys, we’re gonna break it huge,” in a horrible British accent.  The rest of us groaned – or I did, anyway, preferring to keep our ambitions modest.  Preferring something else, too: to put Gerry’s pill-popping out of my mind, though I worried I might not be able to do that before the day was through.

            That Other Guy went on third that day, after Lyme Crane and before Paula Paula, which was this all-girl group that had been kicking ass for the last year all over Fairfax.  We were grateful to play before them.  Jim Martin, a local record storeowner who was in charge of the festival, gave all of the bands – nine total – the breakdown before anyone hit the stage:

            “Keep your set to forty minutes.  Seriously, forty.  We will cut you off.  And keep the language clean – last year I got complaints, don’t ask me who from.  Get as much of your gear off the stage when you finish your set as you can.  Okay, that should be everything.  Any questions?”

            “Are kidney punches allowed?” Harrison asked, a mock-serious look on his face.

            “Never mind, no questions.  Go get your crap together.”  He turned to leave, then remembered one more thing.  “Hold up – forgot to tell you that we’ll be recording all of the sets.  Every group will get a tape in a few weeks.”  No one really reacted, though it was a kind gesture on his part; we were all so focused on the possible record deal with IRS that I don’t think anyone had considered we’d get anything else out of playing that day.

            The four of us scattered around the festival grounds, an hour on our hands before we needed to check in backstage and prepare for our set.  I had half a mind to go with Gerry, maybe just to diminish whatever trouble he might get himself into.  Again, though, I played the coward, grabbing a sno-cone and gazing forlornly (and from a safe distance) at Leah Andrews, the lead singer for Paula Paula, who, incidentally, sat in front of me in physics class.

            The set list was nearly the same, with “Run Like Hell” replacing “More Than a Feeling,” and our energy felt good, like it had at the Knott show.  But as soon as we ran onstage, I noticed something was different.  The Frontboys apparently had decided to come to the festival even though their friends wouldn’t be on the bill.  I saw the dozen or so of them edge forward a little each song, finally reaching the lip of the outdoor stage.  Was I the only one of us who saw these brutes?  At first, I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but after we finished “Mindbender,” and I was introducing everyone in The Other Guy, the Frontboys’ leader bellowed, “Kike singer, nigger drummer,” two or three times.  Kike? I thought.  So he thinks I’m Jewish with this red hair and fair skin?  I laughed as I recalled the framed picture of Pope John Paul II hanging on the wall at my house (my mom was second-generation Polish).  But I turned my head and could tell Harrison heard the slurs, so I counted off the “One, two, three, four,” to start “Blackout” right away.

            The rest of the show was a tug of war: we played each song, sounding as tight as I think we ever had, then abbreviating the between-songs chatter so we didn’t have to contend with the jackass patrol spouting their fascist nonsense.  “Run Like Hell” worked especially well: no one had ever heard us play it before, and between Harrison’s otherworldy drumming and the one-two punch of X and Gerry’s vocals, I thought we might have hit our high point a few songs too early.

            Unfortunately, the crowd’s enthusiasm did nothing to dampen the Frontboys attempts to heckle us off the stage.  “Yeah, you better run like hell, boy,” the leader shouted, this time pointing at Harrison and emphasizing the word ‘boy’ in case our drummer wasn’t getting the message.  All we could do was move on to “Up on the Roof,” during which I noticed Gerry gyrating all over the stage, then reaching back to the microphone stand just in time to join X on the back-up vocals.  One thing was the same: his moves were herky-jerky and unpredictable, drug-addled as his brain was at that point.  But there was something different, too: he was looking at the Frontboys, apparently aware as I was that these guys held us a grudge from the community center show and had their eye on taking out Harrison for being black and me for being Jewish.  As we repeated the chorus to the old Drifters’ tune, I saw Gerry give them all a menacing stare, one they probably didn’t take seriously because he was so rail thin.  I knew something that they didn’t know, though; I knew that Gerry Rittle was a powder keg that day – and that maybe he always had been.

            We tore through “Courtesy of Me,” X’s face full of his wide smile as he played my circus simple riff, I handclapped and Gerry do-si-doed all over the stage, keeping his menacing glare fixed on the Frontboys.  Slowing it down for “Thank You Friends,” gave us a breather, and each time I sang the word ‘friends’ I smiled and looked at those angry skinheads, at one point holding out my hands as if to welcome their embrace.

            When we finished that song, the Frontboys were uncharacteristically silent, though I could still see the rage etched in their faces.  “That was a Big Star tune, hope you liked it,” I said into the microphone.  “This next one will be our last.  X wrote it” – I glanced over at him, catching his eye – “and it’s called ‘Final Go’.”  Before I could back away from the mike, X lit into his opening riff, blistering the air in a way I’d never heard before.  This is it, he seemed to be saying, no sense in holding back, and the rest of us joined in, building bit by bit to the crescendo.  Gerry sang back-up again, still scowling down at the Frontboys, still skittering around the stage.  Without a shirt, his pale white torso was covered in sweat, his leather jacket sticking to his skin.  As he caterwauled across the stage at one point, nearly bumping me away from behind the mike, I saw one of his open pockets, two black plastic film canisters rolling around, and I felt my stomach churn and my face go cold.

            Then came the close of the song.  X had wanted to do something different when he showed it to us months before.  “We’ll do a coda.”

            “A what?” Gerry asked.

            “It’s like a mini-song tacked onto the end of the main song.”

            “Whatever,” Gerry responded.

            During the coda, we switched keys, from G major to A major, and X and Harrison battled it out with a flurry of solos while Gerry and I attempted to keep some kind of rhythm going.  I felt like we were about to collapse into chaos, the song building and building, X’s lead guitar notes ringing loud as church bells.  Gerry and I dueled with each other like we were members of some cheesy metal band, wielding our instruments like weapons.

            I suppose one thing that artists, musical and otherwise, have to learn is how to keep their audiences wanting more.  That afternoon I thought we’d done a pretty good job, and as Harrison hit his crash cymbals one, two, three times to signal the end of “Final Go,” I thought we had a real shot at that record deal with IRS.  What I didn’t notice during the song’s conclusion was the Frontboys assembled in two groups of six or seven, each one near each end of the stage, ready to do something other than wish us well on our performance.  What I didn’t imagine was that Gerry would leap from the stage at that same moment, bass still strapped to his skinny, sweaty body, aiming for the leader of the Frontboys.  So just when we thought we would hear the final round of applause, bouncers all over the festival area broke the ranks of the fans to separate Gerry from the number one skinhead.  In the process, Gerry’s pill bottles fell out, and less than a minute later, we silently watched him get carted away in a Fairfax County cop car.

            I looked at X, then Harrison, speechless.  So this was it, I thought.

Published in: on September 5, 2010 at 7:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Part two of “That Other Guy”

Here’s another installment . . .

***** 

           Gerry’s antagonistic stage antics helped get us noticed.  It also got X pissed off – “What are we, a Sex Pistols tribute band?” – and Harrison frustrated – “Can he follow the beat at least half the time?” – while I felt compelled to play referee and peacemaker.  “C’mon guys, he gives us some stage presence.”  This was partly true, but it was a cover for me, too: I was petrified of singing in front of people (and still am to this day), so Gerry took some of the pressure off of me with his weird gyrations and steady stream of insults for the crowd.

            Harrison and X shook their heads and shot me looks that said in no uncertain terms, You better be right, Danny.

            I’m convinced I was right, but I didn’t know something then about Gerry – something that clued me into his performances on stage and the reason why we stopped performing together as a band.

            A month after we started playing shows, Gerry’s parents divorced.  I’d only met them once so I knew hardly any of the details of the break-up, except that it was loud and ugly.  One night, a heap of clothes, a couple of opened suitcases, and assorted stacks of books and magazines, were all strewn about their front lawn.  I almost parked my station wagon by the Rittle house to pick Gerry up for band practice, but before I could turn off the ignition key, he came running out, his bass in hand (no case), wearing dirty jeans and leather jacket and no shirt.

            It was January.

            “Drive,” he said, and I did.  He didn’t talk about it; I was too much the coward to ask him.

            But that wasn’t everything.  His moods swung all over, from a dark, brooding surliness that enveloped the room as soon as he entered to a high-pitched manic phase that shouted down everyone around him.  He’d always idolized Sid Vicious, but he began to resemble the dead-by-heroin –overdose bassist more and more, from the iron lock on a chain around his neck to the permanent scowl and the spiked black hair (this despite his natural blond locks).  One day at practice he left to go to the upstairs bathroom in X’s house.  I was playing around with the chords of X’s new original song, “Final Go,” which I liked but found more than a little challenging with its jazzy changes and fast rhythms.  I walked around the basement, looking over at X, who was nodding at my strumming and then Harrison, who was testing out different fills for the tune.  Then, as I passed Gerry’s bag sitting on the floor, I saw it.  But I didn’t believe it.

            Later, when I gave Gerry a ride home, I noticed it again, still sticking out of his bag: a black plastic film canister that was really a bottle of pills, looking like the ones that we saw plenty of guys carrying around at shows, both in the Fairfax basements and in clubs all over.  Speed mostly, though I’d heard something about acid and PCP showing up in some neighborhoods.

            Again, I was too much the coward to say a word about it to Gerry, but with every show we played, I saw the unmistakable signs of what the pills – whatever they were – did to Gerry.

            Throwing his body against the walls.

            Bouncing against X or me while we were playing guitar, or brushing against Harrison’s drum kit.

Jumping high in the air – and then just landing with a thump, in a pile, his bass bruising his thighs and ribs.

            Plenty of people thought Gerry’s theatrics were a hoot.  They also thought it was all pre-arranged, too – in other words, that all of us were in on it, letting Gerry play the fool to our three-headed King Lear.  We did nothing to disabuse people of this mistaken notion.

            For a few weeks, I assumed I was the only one who knew about Gerry and his pills.  As with so many things in our band, though, I was wrong.

            “What, are you crazy?” X asked me one day after school as we were walking to the parking lot.  “Of course I know.  So does Harrison.”

            “But . . . how?”

            X shook his head and looked at me, sighing.  “Well, the bouncing around on stage, for one.  And people have been talking.”

            “Oh.  Okay.”

            “One more thing,” he added, stopping for a moment and looking in a few directions as if perhaps Gerry might be nearby to hear our conversation.  “I’ve seen him with some guys at the shows.  Dealers, I’m sure of it.”  I just nodded, having not noticed what should have been obvious to me.

            “So . . . what should we do?”

           “Kick him out of the band,” he responded, without a moment’s hesitation.

           I sputtered.  “But . . . but we can’t.”

           “We can’t?  Sure we can.  Bass players are a dime a dozen.”

           “Well, yeah, but this is Gerry’s band.”  I said it before I thought it, and hearing those words came out of my mouth felt strange to me – not false, but somehow skewed.

           “And the way he’s going, it won’t be anyone’s band.  Don’t you see, kid?  He’s going to get us in trouble.”

           “But none of us . . .”  I stopped there.

           “He gets busted, we’ll all get nabbed for something – possession maybe, aiding and abetting, distribution for all I know.”

           “You don’t think.”  I stepped back from X for a second as if he were aflame.

           “At this point, nothing would surprise me. Nothing, kid.”

           Clearly I didn’t share X’s sentiments, but Harrison felt ambivalent about kicking someone out, so the status quo held.  And we were playing more and more shows, making more and more money, and writing more and more songs.  One night a few guys from some of the D.C. hardcore bands, Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye among them, showed up at an all-ages show at Knott Community Center, half a mile from our high school.  No one mobbed him – this was a DIY scene, after all – but the place was buzzing all the same.  What were those guys doing there?  Was there a chance that their indie label, Dischord, might be looking to sign some bands from the Fairfax scene?

           That night was the first show we played where the originals outnumbered the covers – a good sign, we thought, if we were ever going to be noticed as anything other than some novelty punk band that performed an eclectic selection of other people’s songs.  X’s songs tended to sound moodier, more British, more intricate.  (The year after we broke up, I heard The Cure on my college radio station and could have sworn that X was playing guitar on – and had written – “Lovecats.”)  My songs – well, my songs tended to result in people dancing.  I can’t say that was ever my intention, but what can you do?  I often had horn parts playing in my head while I was writing the lyrics and strumming the chords on the Gibson hollow body electric that my father gave me one Christmas when I was 12.  Maybe that’s why there were usually “doo-wahs” and “la-las” in my choruses where trumpets and saxophones might otherwise have played.  I sometimes referred to our set lists as punkadelic, which made Gerry gnash his teeth, of course.

            At the community center show, we were second to last on the bill.  It was a battle of the bands, of a sort, anyway: the top two bands would get to play a festival show in May.  Metric System had played that same festival in ’81 and got signed by IRS Records, this small sort-of-independent label that was distributed by one of the majors and already had The Go-Gos and The English Beat recording for them.

            We began our set with one of my songs, “Mindbender,” probably my most upbeat tune.  “Whip them into a frenzy,” X would say before we started playing this two-chord rave-up, and we often did, though part of me felt like he resented my song becoming our standard opener.  Next was X’s “Blackout,” which featured some of the most explosive – and, frankly, least punk – drumming of any of our songs.  Harrison neatly segued from a tight beat to a nearly go-go rhythm, echoing D.C.’s Chuck Brown and another music scene that never quite rose to national prominence.

            After that, we did a couple of covers – “More Than a Feeling,” which got equal amounts of cheers and confused stares, and The Drifters’ “Up on the Roof,” which featured X and Gerry harmonizing nicely on the back-up vocals – and felt confident that we had a lock on one of the two festival slots.  Gerry was in his best Sid Vicious mode, but the stage at Knott was so much bigger than the basement spaces we’d been playing for the last few months, so his gesticulations seemed a lot less pronounced.  At least for the first four songs, anyway.

            Next came another one of my songs, “Courtesy of Me,” a short song with lots of handclaps and a goofy little four-note guitar solo that X could have played in his sleep.  More frenzy, and during the second half of the song, when I stopped playing guitar and clapped along with Harrison’s Wall of Sound drum beat filling the place, Gerry started dancing, flailing really, somehow still managing to play the bass part (only three notes, thankfully).  I watched him from the corner of my eye, smiling at first.  The more he flailed, though, the more my smile became a mockery of itself.  Was he going to self-destruct now, with just two songs left and our spot at the festival almost guaranteed?

            “Courtesy of Me” ended on Harrison’s rim shot, and I jumped to the mike, figuring that starting our next song right away might keep Gerry from unraveling completely.  Or just bring this set to a quicker close.

            We started playing our third and final cover, our most obscure of all of them, Big Star’s “Thank You Friends.”  It was a good deal slower than some of our other tune, which was good: Gerry just stood fairly still, played his very simple bass part – four notes on this one, I think – and all we had left was our closer, X’s “Final Go.”  When we’d hashed out our set list a few days before, I resisted ending with this song, half-assedly arguing that it was too Mission of Burma, too weird to go out on at a battle of the bands.  X didn’t respond – maybe because he wasn’t a fan of starting with “Mindbender,” I speculated – but Harrison was adamant.  “Weird?  It’s his best tune.”  He pointed at X for emphasis.  “That makes it one of our best.”  And, to my surprise, Gerry nodded, making the decision clear.

            Before X opened his song with a thundering riff high on the fret board, I walked over to him and whispered something to him about Gerry to which he nodded, then opened the floodgates.  For the next three minutes, we all jumped around, actually, Gerry flailing again, X and I pogoing to Harrison’s propulsive rhythm.  When X finished, returning to the initial riff, I was sure we were in – and Gerry fell over dramatically to punctuate the moment.  (Everyone in the crowd seemed to think his fall was hilarious, much as crowds had for the previous five months.)

            We rushed to the makeshift backstage, adrenaline pumping and sweat soaking our t-shirts and jeans.  We barely listened to Lyme Crane, the final act.  Too bad, too: great little three-piece that sounded like a hyperactive cross between early David Bowie and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Their set seemed to end in record time while we sat in a circle staring at each other as if to say, “Can you believe it?”  When they called our name – and Lyme Crane’s, as it turned out – we weren’t surprised.  Not a bit.

            As we cleaned up after the show, one of the organizers came up to me.  “Hey.  You Kramer?”

            “Uh huh.”  I had my guitar case in one hand, my amp in the other, and I was eager to go home and sleep, not talk to this guy – or anyone, for that matter.

            “Listen, I don’t want to bring you down after that great set and all . . .”  He dropped off vaguely, as if I already knew what he was going to tell me.

            “Then don’t,” I said, feeling more cross.

            He laughed.  “No, seriously.  Look, I just need you to be aware of something.”  He turned his head both ways, as if he were checking for traffic before he crossed, or worried that  someone might want to listen to his secret.  “That bass player of yours.  The cops, well . . .”

            “Well . . . what?”

            “They know.”  He looked me in the eyes as if to say anything more might lead directly to Gerry Rittle getting his Miranda rights read to him.

            I played nonchalant.  “They know, huh?”

            He only nodded, slowly walking away, while I felt my body quake for a moment.  Would we even make it to the festival show? I wondered.

Published in: on September 4, 2010 at 1:46 am  Comments (4)  
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Part one of a story titled “That Other Guy”

Here’s a story I wrote – or at least the first section.  I’ll post the other sections in the course of the next week.

*****

            Reunions are at the heart of a lot of great stories.  Odysseus returns to Penelope after 20 long years at sea, fighting off the tempting sirens and the vengeful Poseidon.  Ebenezer Scrooge does an about face and rejoins the human race, stopping in at his nephew Fred’s house after a long night of eye-opening dreams.  Huck Finn meets up with Jim near the end of the novel to save his friend from the injustice of slavery, after a long circuitous route involving faux kings, an unexplained feud, and more than a couple of fake names.  This is not a reunion story, though.  Not really.

            When we were in high school, it was all about hardcore punk.  Or at least that’s the way people in our circle talked.  Picture it: 1982, Fairfax, Virginia, an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., and kids all over are starting up bands and playing shows in their friends’ basements (and, when things are really going well, the occasional coffeehouse or club).  In some respects, our group was no different from the others.

            Gerry Rittle, the bass player, instigated it all as far back as middle school – we all went to Poe – by singing “Pretty Vacant,” at the top of his lungs in the cafeteria, perched atop the table where we’d been eating our lunch just moments before.

            Xavier Solz, or X, the lead guitarist, was a British music aficionado, having lived there for most of grade school and stocked up on plenty of records along the way.  His hair was a dark black, well before the Goth scene even became a scene stateside.

            Harrison Winfield, our drummer, had traveled the world with his Navy commander dad and claimed major league baseball player Dave Winfield as his uncle.  Harrison had weird gaps in his musical knowledge, due I suppose to his travels as a kid

            That leaves me: Danny Kramer, rhythm guitar and vocals, lifelong resident of the commonwealth of Virginia.

            Now I mentioned that we weren’t that different from the other punk rock groups in the Fairfax scene.  Two guitars, bass, and drums for one, but our appearance gave us away, too: close-cropped hair; white t-shirts and jeans; scruffy sneakers or black boots.  I suppose our music sounded similar to other groups’ in the scene, too, like Random Y, Metric System, The Dangers, or Paula Paula (whose lead singer Leah Andrews was reason enough for me to go to see their shows).  We mixed up our set like they did, scattering cover tunes among our originals.  It wasn’t a rule or anything that you had to do covers, I don’t think, but some groups did them because they figured it was easier to learn someone else’s song than write your own.  Others just really dug a particular tune and wanted to play it.  For us, covers were a constant bone of contention.

            “Why not ‘(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone’?” Gerry asked one afternoon, a few days before our first basement gig.

            “Why not?” X responded, incredulous.  “How about ‘cause everyone does it, maybe?  Like Minor Threat, for one.”  He paused.  “Besides, it’s a Monkees’ tune.”  X always was a bit snobbish about any Brit imitators.

            The mention of the DC hardcore band Minor Threat, already on their way to legendary status, shut Gerry up for a moment, though for complicated reasons.  See, our little Fairfax scene often felt like it was competing with the burgeoning DC scene.  We probably should have known that we had no chance of measuring up with Minor Threat, Bad Brains, or any number of other groups coming out of the nation’s capitol, but merely mentioning one of them by name raised the question: Better to imitate them or do the opposite?  We ended up being confused a lot.

            But back to the covers conversation.

            Harrison, who was stretched out on the floor of X’s basement floor, crossed his arms and looked up at the ceiling as if song titles might magically show up there.  His perspective was unique in more ways than one – living overseas meant he had these odd gaps of knowledge about the bands and songs that the rest of us took for granted, from the popular radio-friendly ones to the less-heralded underground groups.  “How about that song by that band – damn it, what’s their name?  They’re named after a city?”

            “Chicago?” I asked, pretty sure I was dead wrong.

            “No.”

            “Boston?” X offered, looking equally convinced as I had been a moment before.

            “Yeah, yeah,” Harrison said excitedly, tapping out a beat with his hand, then launching into the vocal with a bit of a falsetto: “ ‘More than a feelin’ ”  X, Gerry, and I watched in various stages of amazement and amusement.

            “You’ve got to be kidding,” Gerry said, kicking his bass guitar case pointlessly.

            “What?  It’s a good song,” Harrison protested, now slapping more insistently on the concrete floor.  He looked at me and X, hoping for a different response.  X stared at his feet, but his face gave me the impression that he was working out some complicated math problem without the benefit of pencil and paper.  Before I could say a word, he’d picked up his guitar, turned up the volume on his amp, and played a slightly revved up version of the riff to that Boston song that was still getting requested on Top 40 radio.  He looked over at me finally, still playing, shouting, “Think you can sing it?”

            That moment was typical for us.  At our first show and all the ones that followed we invariably covered songs that struck one of us as interesting or strange – that was the only real criteria, looking back.  Gerry lost out a lot here, because he would recommend Ramones’ songs half the time.

            “ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’?  Why?” X would ask.

            “ ‘Cause it’s punk rock and it’s a great song – isn’t that obvious?”

            “Yeah, but what are we gonna do with that song?”  Harrison asked, genuinely curious.  But Gerry couldn’t respond; most of the time it seemed like all he wanted to do was offer a Xerox copy of the CBGB’s alums’ classic tunes.  Still, though we vetoed nearly every one of his suggestions, somehow it was Gerry who drove the band.  Without his belting out The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” in his best punk rock snarl, standing atop the cafeteria table, I think we probably would’ve hung out on occasion, maybe even gone to a few of those basement shows, but that’s about it.  Harrison would’ve played drums in the marching band and jazz ensemble – which he did anyway – and X and I probably would’ve just noodled around on our guitars in front of our ever-captive mirrors.

            It did take us a couple years into high school until most of us had gotten out of a few very lame groups, though.  Our senior year came along, Gerry broke down and bought an imitation Fender bass at a garage sale for $19, and finally we could call ourselves a band.  Before we knew it, we started playing basements all over Fairfax.  Most places started their shows a little after nine and tried to have at least five or six bands on the bill.  We would’ve played all night if we could’ve, but we generally wrapped things up by 1 a.m., because if we didn’t, we risked cops coming and shutting us down, maybe arresting some people, too, if they weren’t careful with the beer and the pills that were becoming more and more common on our scene.

            This arrangement meant having a 40 minute set ready to go.  Early on, we played almost exclusively covers – maybe that was another reason bands played them – some kind of sentimental attachment to the early days? – and then gradually X and I started writing original songs.

            Meanwhile, our cover list became steadily more schizophrenic.  We’d follow “More Than a Feeling” with James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and then segue into The Box Tops’ “The Letter.”  Somehow it worked: we kept getting invited to play again, and each time we played we got paid a little more.  (Let’s not kid ourselves, though: the first show we played for nothing, and by the time we called it quits, I think we were maybe getting $200, split four ways.)

            I probably knew it then, but I certainly know now that one reason we kept getting called back was Harrison.  Damn could that guy play.  I mean professional level when he was 16 or 17.  Flat out the best drummer I’ve ever seen, he made us sound good when my voice was cracking (not uncommon) or Gerry’s bass was out of tune (ditto).  Then there was X, who took to wearing these jet black sunglasses to offset his pale white skin and make himself look even more British than usual.  (Plus, his guitar-playing kept improving, something a lot of people didn’t notice but should have.)  Gerry, snubbed as he often was, deserves his share of the credit, though his contribution was less musical and more theatrical.  As a bassist, he was mildly competent, but his Sid Vicious act always got people going – partly because he often appeared to bait audiences with his sneers and mean-spirited comments, and partly because a lot of people assumed he was just joking around with them.  It was never fully clear which was true, and I think that was just how Gerry liked it.  His sense of presentation carried us some nights, and also tipped the scales when it came to choosing a band name.

            “I hate this,” X said after an hour of mind-numbing possibilities: The Kranx, School Daze, Jars of Piss, and the worst of the lot, Unfair Facts.

            “Well, we need something,” I added lamely.  I had suggested half of the names and felt defeated and defensive.  I kept rubbing my quarter-inch thick red hair, still itchy from a spotty shave job I did myself the night before

            “The Harrison Four,” Harrison suggested, again, and snorted.  He was sitting behind his drum kit and he had just shaved his head bald again, which might have looked imposing on anyone else, but this large black teenager was grinning like a little kid.

            “Nice, Harrison,” X said, and groaned.

            Gerry began pacing, making me nervous.

            “What?” I asked, still edgy.

            “What do people know us for?” he asked.

            “Huh?”

            “What do people remember about us?”

            We paused.  I was afraid he was going to treat us to another one of his piss-offs about our choices of cover songs, but no.  He just waited for us to respond.  Harrison offered his take.  “My sweet rhythms?”

            “Good God,” X said, walking towards the door and pantomiming several headbangs in quick succession.

            “Well, he asked.”
            “We’re kind of . . . different,” I said vaguely, not really sure what I even meant.

            “Uh huh,” Gerry said, apparently agreeing and getting excited.  He looked around at all of us.  “Remember last Saturday night at McCarthy’s place?”  We all nodded, recalling our most recent show.  “I heard one of the guitarists in The Dangers talking to somebody about us.”

            “So?” X asked, looking confused.

            “He kept calling us ‘those other guys’.”  Gerry smiled, more than a little maniacally.

            “So you’re saying . . .” I began.

            “Uh huh.”

            “ ‘Those Other Guys’?” Harrison said, tapping out a reggae beat on the snare and the floor tom.

            “Or maybe ‘That Other Guy’?” X offered.

            And so we had our name, courtesy of Gerry.  None of us ever bothered to check the truth of his story, either; that didn’t seem to matter. 

*******

            It’s been 25 years since That Other Guy – we agreed to leave off  ‘those’ since it just sounded weirder and therefore cooler to us – played its last show.  I’ve been teaching most of that time, high school English, but lost touch with the other guys.  I know that Harrison stuck with music, though: he plays with a ska group, The Taser Lites, which has had a few hits and a huge word-of-mouth following up and down the East coast.  The Grateful Dead of ska, some people call them.  He’s smart, too, though I’ve always known that: I read an article about how he not only plays drums for The Taser Lites but also works as the drum technician for the bands that play with them on their tours, guaranteeing that he’ll be doing just fine even if his own group is having an off year.  He was going to make his living in the music biz, no question about it.  I even tried to get tickets to see his group play one night in D.C., but they sold out too quickly for me.

            X – who had always been X, from middle school when he insisted, quietly and politely, that teachers refer to him as such – followed in his father’s footsteps, doing foreign service work  all over the world.  I lost track of him, too, though I know he spent time in Turkey, Lebanon, Qatar, and Germany.  Supposedly he came back to Fairfax every now and then – his parents stayed in the area, even remaining in the same house – but I either heard about him being in town after the fact, or was out of town myself when he was here.

            As for Gerry – well, damn if I know anything about him after that last show.

Published in: on September 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Part three of the story

The final installment of the story.  Still searching for a title . . .

*************************** 

           They’ve slept through the night – that much Darren can figure out as he sees farmland pass them by. Somewhere in the Midwest, he figures, though never having been out here he has no idea whether they’re in Nebraska, Iowa, or Ohio. Naomi is curled up on her seat, her feet just barely reaching the seat opposite her. Can’t be comfortable, he thinks, as he feels a crick in his own neck from leaning against the windowpane for the better part of the night.

            He feels slightly better rested now than he did yesterday, but wonders again how much of that has to do with having even more distance between him and San Diego. He reaches into his bag and feels for the envelope he’d been holding the night before, opening it a crack and counting the small stack of bills one more time, locating yet again a small scrap of paper behind the stack. Early Monday morning, just a couple of hours before he walked to the bus depot, he sat outside a café drinking some weird tea that the waitress insisted he’d like, all on the pretext of waiting for a delivery, which came as the sun was still rising – that simple white envelope, unmarked but for a label reading ‘Sheridan Delivery’ on the back.

            This was his payment for the job.

            This was all he had to work with now that San Diego was part of his past.

            This was what he walked away with after he and his partner discovered in the darkness of their attempted bank heist that opening any one of the safety deposit boxes – to say nothing of the particular one that the man who’d hired them really cared about, which turned out to be in a separate vault altogether – would set off at least two separate alarms.

            And that man who’d hired them – a man who insisted on going nameless – had laid out the deal for them: 1) get to that deposit box, remove its contents, get out of there, and give me those contents, or 2) burn it down, no questions asked, no need to meet.

            When Darren first heard these two options, he laughed for a moment. Stealing was one thing, and he’d done plenty in the San Diego area, but arson was a new one. He thought maybe the guy was joking, but a few seconds passed and it was clear – there was something in that safety deposit box that he badly wanted to have, and if he couldn’t have it, well then no one else could, either. And he’d pay to ensure either outcome.

            Option one paid more, so Darren and his partner put most of their energy into researching the bank and determining how they would enter the lobby area and then access the various vaults. Option two was an afterthought marked by the small bag that they half-filled with lighter fluid and matches. After all, it paid less – significantly less. So why give much time to burning down a whole building?

            But that night went badly – it rained starting right before midnight and as soon as they got inside the bank they saw that their research had been incomplete, if the keypads by the vault doors were any indication. Darren’s partner was prepared to open the security panel on the back wall and cut the necessary wires that would allow them to get to the safety deposit boxes in their own sweet time; Darren even offered the added possibility of finding their way into the main vault and whatever cash they could carry. Why not? They were already there, right?

            Looking back, it was that extra item that made a difficult job impossible. As soon as his partner opened the panel and determined which wires to cut, Darren was already mapping out how they would not only walk into the vault, but also how they’d cram their bags full of bills, then swing by the safety deposit box in question, take out its contents, and be on their merry way.

            Darren’s partner was about to cut the third and final wire when they both heard the sound they most feared – the alarm system, blaringly loud, even before they’d determined the exact location of their employer’s box. They looked at each other in a panic, pausing.

            Then they knew that now they had only one option left – if they wanted to get paid at all, that is.

            The next morning, after sleeping for all of a couple of hours in the back of a borrowed and beat-up Honda Celica, Darren waited at that café and avoided reacting when a pedestrian he’d never seen before dropped the envelope on his table and continued walking. When he checked to see if the money was all there, he was disappointed, even angry. I nearly died for you, he thought. Then he reached inside the envelope for the scrap of paper that included a brief note, typewritten, presumably from his now former employer.

You & your partner are nearly useless. I’ve already heard that the police have found a bag that you left behind. And as for burning down the bank, you didn’t finish the job, so now they know the target – the safety deposit boxes. Consider your diminished payment a product of your sloppy handiwork. Don’t even think about complaining or renegotiating, either; after all, arson’s a felony that you don’t want to fight in court.

            Why Darren keeps the note, he has no idea, but the anger has largely subsided now. Nothing much he can do except hope that the money from the job will be enough for him to get started – somehow, somewhere. Naomi begins to stir, so he puts the envelope deep inside his bag.

            “Wow – I slept good.  You?”

            He nods, though now he’s beginning to feel groggy again.

            “Mmmm. Another day on the bus,” she says, slowly rising to a sitting position in her seat. “So any more ideas about what you gonna do once you arrive at your destination?” She smiles as she finishes the question.

            “I don’t recall mentioning any ideas yesterday,” he says.

            “True. Does that mean you still don’t know?”

            “Weighing my options.”

            “Aren’t we all.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Well, we all got things we’re looking to do, right? Like I told you I need to find a job, right? They don’t just hand you one when you walk into a new town. And I know almost nothing about Albany – so I gotta figure out which jobs are even worth trying for, y’know?”

            “Sure. What sorta work did you do in San Diego?”

            “Little of this, little of that. Worked the deli counter some, but been working as a messenger for the last six months or so.  Pretty good pay, actually.”

            Darren watches his hand reach for his bag as if it has a mind of its own. “Messenger?”

            “Yeah, I’d bike around, sometimes walk. Any old thing – packages and envelopes big and small, just stuff that people wanted to get to other people right away. And without having to deal with the post office.” She frowns slightly after this final observation.

            “Uh huh,” he says, but his mind is racing with the possibilities. “Are there a lot of messenger jobs in San Diego?”

            “Not tons. It’s no San Francisco or Oakland – the city’s just laid out real different, at least that’s what my boss said. There’re only three or four companies hiring in San Diego – QuikStop, Mercury Services, Sheridan Delivery – and the other one I always forget. It might be out of business, for all I know.”

            At the mention of Sheridan Delivery, he feels his heart beat not so much faster as louder. And he recalls shaking her hand and feeling those calluses and seeing those scratches – by-product of delivering messages around greater San Diego? Maybe.

            “You think you’ll look for another messenger job in Albany?”

            “Maybe. Not sure there’s as much of a need, though – I mean, it is the capital of the state and all, but the urban section is pretty small compared to San Diego. It would be nice to find something as good as Sheridan offered, though.”

            Darren swallows, but doesn’t want to lose the rhythm of the conversation or let on that something’s wrong. “How do you mean?”

            “Oh, you know – flexible hours, that sort of thing. My boss let me set my time every week and trusted me to get my work done. If I could get that sort of job, let me tell you – that would make everything perfect.”

            “I see.” He sits, staring ahead now, thinking about how this young woman could easily have been the one who dropped off the envelope that is currently nestled in the bottom of his duffel. But no, it wasn’t her – she was with her family, evacuated from her building, thanks in no small part to his efforts.

            “Now I gotta ask, why all this curiosity about messenger jobs? You looking to get into the field?” Again, the smile.

            “I dunno,” he mutters. “Maybe. Didn’t really know that much about it in San Diego, that’s all.”

            “Yeah, well, it’s gonna help me pay my bills for at least a couple of months. Funny, though, my main boss at Sheridan, good as he was, he never talked about our clients.”

            “Why’s that funny?”

            “Well, maybe not funny, but I always imagined delivering some important package to a higher-up at town hall, or some secret message for a CEO – I know, sounds crazy.”

            He laughs, but it’s nervous laughter now. He sees a sign saying ‘Welcome to Missouri’ along the highway.

            “I was working on Saturday and my boss, he was on edge for some reason,” Naomi continues. “I couldn’t get him to explain anything, so I just picked up my packages and envelopes and left.”

            “Why do you think he was on edge?”

            “Got me. I even wondered about it Sunday while my parents were walking mi hermanos out of church. Did he know something about the fire? Like I said, I know I’m talking crazy here, but maybe some kinda premonition or something. Didn’t dare mention that to mi familia. Way too much superstition there already, if you ask me.”

            For a brief moment, he is convinced that she’s onto him – and has been from the moment she got on the bus. But how could that be? he thinks. She wasn’t working Sunday; she wasn’t the one who delivered the envelope with his payment. Surely he’s just being paranoid.

            But then what about him? Here he is leaving San Diego with one bag, no real answers to her questions, and no plans for the future. That all adds up to ‘person of interest’ – maybe even ‘suspect’- certainly someone who inspires suspicion.

            Naomi appears not to notice his panic, though, instead opening her novel and reading it, settling herself in for another long day on the bus.

            The hours pass slowly for Darren, punctuated by his hit-or-miss attempts to sleep and avoid thinking about what Naomi may or may not know. He considers getting off at the next stop and not getting back on – he’s far enough away from San Diego by now that he should be in the clear, he figures, but his uncertainty about this woman, coupled with all that she’s told him on this, the second day of their trip, makes him feel indecisive.

            Hunger pangs hit him now and he has half a mind to ask the bus driver when they’ll be grabbing breakfast or lunch – he recalls after looking at his watch one more time that he still has not watch – but holds off doing even that. Better not to call attention to myself, he thinks, ridiculous as that is on a bus where he’s one of two riders. But not five minutes later, the driver calls out as he did late the night before, loud and clear for both of them to hear, “Lunch break!”

            They walk off slowly, Darren bringing his bag with him like he did for dinner yesterday, Naomi refraining from commenting on the bad this time. Another nondescript roadside diner, another chance to stretch before continuing the trip.

            They sit in a booth across from each other and both order the daily special of club sandwich and clam chowder, and wait in silence.

            “Be back in a minute,” he says, picks up his bag and heads to the bathroom in the back. Is now the time to make the break? he thinks, but when he opens the door, he sees a tiny window that he can barely stick his arm out of. Damn – oh well. He does his business, slowly washes his hands, and walks out.

            Even before he slips back into the booth, he sees that their food is ready. Pretty good service, he thinks, and is about to start eating.

            “Now it’s my turn,” she says, laughs and grabs a few French fries. As she walks, he notices her figure – she’s slim, not very tall, but he guesses that she could hold her own in a fight – not that he’s looking to start one or anything.

            He starts eating, feeling those hunger pangs come back loud and clear: first the soup, to pace his empty stomach, then nibbling on the sandwich. A few minutes pass and he doesn’t pause to consider where Naomi is, but keeps eating, not so much enjoying the food as shoveling it down as if he might not see any more any time soon.

            As he sips his coke, he looks to his left and sees a familiar-looking envelope marked ‘Sheridan Delivery’, but this one’s sealed. On the front it reads ‘Hand over on Tuesday, April 5.’  He opens it and unfolds the scrap of paper inside before thinking about who might have written it.

You think you’ve gotten away, but I know better. I paid you half when I should have paid you nothing, you never even contacted your partner, and now the police are beginning to ask me questions. Don’t think for a minute that this is the end. I will find you.

            He looks up, sees the bus driver eating his sandwich and the women’s bathroom door still closed; he grabs the note and shoves it in his pocket. In one fluid motion, he reaches into his bag, takes a ten dollar bill out of the envelope there and lays it on the countertop, grabs his bag, stands up, and leaves the diner, not looking back for anyone.

Published in: on August 21, 2010 at 2:30 pm  Comments (6)  
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Part two of a new story

The next installment – enjoy.

**********

           As the questions pile up, Darren keeps his eyes fixed on the passing scenery, as if perhaps merely looking at Naomi will arouse suspicion. He sticks one of his hands in the bag that, until now, he’s been content to leave on the floor by his feet, but keeps the bag out of view.

            Maybe it’s five minutes, maybe it’s an hour, but eventually Naomi wakes up, stretches and glances at the slightly grayer skies outside in what must be Arizona – lots of red clay, open spaces, minimal vegetation. She exhales deeply for a moment, then rifles through her bag, picking up the novel she was reading earlier, then reconsidering, still taking stock of her options.

            “So you heard the news, right?”she asks without preamble.

            “Huh?” Darren meets her gaze briefly, feels his hand take hold of an envelope in his bag.

            “You telling me you were living under a rock over the weekend? The big news!” Here she points at the headline he’d noticed while she was sleeping.

            “Oh yeah, that. Sure, I mean, I saw the local TV cover it, what, Sunday night or something.” He tries to play it casual; he hopes that she’ll just drop the whole thing, maybe go back to sleep, or at least let him take a turn at getting a nap.

            “It’s crazy. That building’s right around the corner from where I live. Or lived, I should say. They had to evacuate us Saturday night. Woke up my parents at one in the morning.”

            “Wow. Was – was there any damage to your – ” He stops short, unsure for a moment.

            “To our apartment? No, at least there wasn’t as of Sunday morning. But that’s all luck, to hear the fire department guys talk. Three of the four apartment complexes on that block had some serious damage. I mean, we’re talking about being evacuated for a week or more, some people maybe never going back to their places.”

            “Oh.” He bites down on his lower lip, trying now to navigate his way through what is proving to be a minefield of a conversation. “Is that the Sunday paper, or today’s?”

            “This? Today’s. Picked it up right as I was leaving to catch the bus.”

            “Any developments?” Naomi scans the article, opens to the middle pages to see the continuation. As she does, Darren cannot help but see the serious look on her face, the curve of her jaw set as she reads, even the way her elbows point out like a ballerina’s as she spreads the metro section of the paper full and wide.

            “Besides the police saying it’s definitely arson, there’s not a lot. I mean, there’s a bank in that building, plus some offices. They’re speculating that whoever did it – and they seem to think it was at least a couple of people – must have had some sort of motive connected to the bank, since the offices are all for non-profits. Wouldn’t be a lot of reason to barge in there, they figure.”

            “Yeah. Suppose so.”

            She continues to read, finishing the one article and moving onto another, leaving him to think through the silence, a very different kind of silence than the one she afforded him while she was sleeping. Again, questions arise:

            Should I keep quiet and hope that she just doesn’t bring up the story?

            Or should I stay in the conversation and that way seem like I’m just a regular guy asking questions like anyone else would?

            Or, should I just get off at the next stop (wherever that is)?

            But Naomi makes the decision for him. “My papi – oh my God, he had this look on his face when the police came on Saturday night. I had to stand between him and this cop who looked younger than me, poor guy, just kept on saying, ‘We’re gonna need ya ta leave, sir,’ talking like he was from Queens or something, not walking the beat down by East Village south of Market Street . . .”

            And she keeps going – at first Darren isn’t sure what to make of it, but he gives at least the appearance of listening, hoping that she’ll get it all out of her system at once, and then, once they’ve hit New Mexico, he can switch topics.

            “So papi’s out of work until at least next month, ‘cause they have to relocate him to a new building, and it’s been a tough time for janitors in San Diego, anyway. America’s Finest City? Dios mio,” she mutters under her breath.

            Darren laughs at her mention of San Diego’s nickname, a marketing ploy if there ever was one. But he’s also laughing at how he’s leaving that behind – or that idea behind, anyway, of a good place to grow up and get a job and all those things his parents told him over the years. Sure, the nickname was a joke, but what does he have in mind as an alternative? The bus has to stop somewhere.

            “So, pardon me for asking, but you left even after all of that?”

            “Oh, don’t get me started,” she says, but she’s smiling. “I told him, I said, ‘Papi, I’m not leaving til usted y mama are back on your feet, but no no no no no. He wasn’t hearing it. ‘No nina of mine,’ he yelled, ‘stays back and misses out on la universidad.’ That’s my papi.”

            “Wait – you were going to be leaving for Albany today anyway?”

            “Oh yeah. After the big Easter celebration, pack up my backs and head east. You know – get a place, find a job, enroll for some summer courses. That was the plan all along. Of course, the Easter celebration was not quite the same this year.”

            “Still evacuated?”

            “They let us back in in the evening, after we’d gone – my parents, my two hermanos, and me – to mass in our jeans and t-shirts and then went to the buffet. Real classy, y’know? And the whole time, mi madre can barely keep from crying.” She stops, folds up the paper, places it in her bag, and leans back against the window. “And less than twenty-four hours later, I get on a bus and leave them behind.” She shoots Darren a look. “But enough about me. What about you? You got a family, right?”

            This I can handle, he thinks. Anything to avoid talking about this past weekend. “Sure. Mom and dad, younger brother. They live up by the coast. I moved out after high school, though.”

            “Oh, cool. Got your own place then.”

            “Well, had my own place.”

            “Oh, yeah.”

            “But, uh, I don’t really see them too often. Been a few weeks, in fact.”

            “Do they know you’re leaving town?”

            “Nope.” He looks out the window again. The darkening sky hints at rain, maybe even a thunder storm.

            “Really? That’s . . . I mean, won’t they get worried about you?”

            “Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. See, they weren’t too worried when I moved out a couple years ago.” He feels his jaw tighten as he recalls those conversations, his insistence to his parents that he could make it on his own, their ignorance of how he planned to pay his bills.

            “Then why’d you stay in San Diego?”

            Good question, he thinks, and he doesn’t have an easy answer for Naomi – just as he didn’t have one for his father, who’d offered to send him to San Diego State, or to one of the local community colleges in the meantime while he figured out what he was interested in, what he wanted to do with himself. “Had some friends still in the area. Had some ideas about getting some work.” And there he realizes he’s opened the door again.

            “What sorta work?” Naomi asks, seemingly as casual as can be.

            “Um, I guess you could call it ‘entrepreneurial efforts,’” he says with a straight face. Will this fly? he wonders.

            “You kidding me? So business? Sales?”

            “Well, like that, but self-employed. I mean, that’s why I wanted out of my parents’, really. Just wanted to do things on my own.”

            “Okay. I think I get it now.”

            “What do you mean you get it?”

            “Well, you were what, 18, 19? You and your buddies wanna sell – geez, I don’t know what you guys wanna sell, but I’ll assume for now it’s something legal.” She laughs for a moment, then continues. “Flash forward a year or two later, and here you are on a bus, ready to take your ‘entrepreneurial efforts’ with you to some other city that you can call home. That about right?”

            He breathes in deeply, thinking that she’s either got the goods on him (and therefore he’s done), or she’s playing around with him (and maybe he’s safe after all). So give up the remaining goods, or play along? “Sure – that’s about right,” he says, smiling along with her.

            After dodging a series of storms, it’s nearly nightfall, and the bus driver calls out, “Dinner stop,” loud and clear, perhaps unaware that he’s only got a couple of customers on this bus. They stand up and stretch and Naomi starts walking off the bus.

            “You coming?”

            Darren pauses, grabs his bag. “Yeah, I’m coming.”

            “What, don’t trust the rest of the riders?” He ignores her question and keeps walking towards the exit.

            Their meal inside this non-descript roadside diner flashes by Darren. He listens closely to the waitresses talk local gossip as if something they have to say might relate to the unsolved case back in San Diego. Naomi, meanwhile, chats up the regulars in the place, seemingly comfortable anywhere she finds herself.

            As they walk back on the bus, she hands him a copy of the local paper, the El PasoTimes. “Welcome to Sun City!” she says with a touch of Texas twang.

            He eases into his seat and takes a quick look at the front page of the paper with the aid of the one streetlight in front of the diner, and sure enough, there it is:

The Associated Press

Monday, April 4, 1983

SAN DIEGO, CA – Police continue to unravel a case that started out as arson, but now includes attempted robbery in a downtown bank. A spokesman for the police refused to speculate on the number of suspects or the specific targets for theft, but indicated their confidence that they are on the right path, having uncovered a few sets of fingerprints and what appears to be some gear left behind by the assailants.

Published in: on August 19, 2010 at 7:38 pm  Comments (5)  
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Part one of a new story

Okay – I talked about posting some fiction the other day, so here goes – the first 2,000 words or so of a new story (no title yet).  Would love to hear feedback.

***************

Darren O’Reilly has had a tough day.  At least that’s what he’d tell you if you asked him.  But no one’s asking him anything right now, sitting alone as he is in a bus depot outside of one of San Diego’s many suburbs.  He wouldn’t be inclined to share much more than the rough outline of things.  “The details, man, the details,” he might say – those he keeps to himself.

            More than once, Darren’s checked his watch only to remember that along with his bass guitar, Marshall amp, and half a dozen other items, he’d hocked it so he could buy his bus ticket.  So Darren waits, hoping that the local Greyhound bus is a timely one.

            Like most days in San Diego, it’s sunny, a good day for hanging out, skipping work or school.  Darren sits inside the bus depot and takes one last look at this town that he’s leaving behind – that’s his plan, anyway – giving it an arm’s length treatment, observing it more like a stop along the way, or even a layover on a longer trip, and not his hometown.

            It’s Easter Monday.  Darren heard something on the radio this morning about the 15th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, but was packing his few things and paid it little attention.  He was a kid when that happened; he’d heard his parents talk about the man – this was before they’d moved to San Diego – and their words had a strange edge to them.

            “Sure, speaking up is fine,” his dad would say.

            “Everyone has a right to their opinion,” his mom would offer.

            But Darren wondered if there were something else going on – at least he did when he was younger.  Now?  Well, things were a lot more complicated now.

            The Greyhound finally pulls up and Darren realizes that he’s been holding his breath.  He quickly exhales, steps outside the depot, approaches the bus and prepares to board, ticket in one hand, small duffel in the other.  The day remains shiny, seventy degrees, perfect.  The driver takes his ticket and Darren steps onto the bus, finding his way to the back.  He figures he’ll be the only passenger for the first part of the trip.

            “Five minutes ‘til departure,” the driver bellows, as if perhaps there are dozens of people who need to be updated, and not just one.

            He settles in a seat in the back, determining how much leg room he’ll need for such a long trip.

            The driver lingers inside the depot and out of Darren’s vision for the full five minutes, and just as he steps back onto the bus and gets set to leave, another passenger follows him and Darren sighs, disappointed that he won’t have the bus to himself.  The young woman, probably his age, maybe a little younger, walks towards the back of the bus, as if perhaps she thinks the other seats are reserved, and proceeds to sit catty-corner from Darren in the next-to-last seat on the left.

            “Hi,” she says, unbidden, and the bus lurches out of the depot and onto the service road that leads to the interstate.

            “Hi,” Darren responds, and he looks away, pretending indifference, but he can’t deny that this is one pretty girl – maybe not one he’d date, but hey – and he’s going to have a long trip on a bus with her.  Maybe things are looking up, he thinks.

            Before he can think any more, though, she reaches across with her hand out.  “I’m Naomi.  I figure we’re on this bus for the next, what, 60 hours?  We should at least get to know each other a little.”  He extends his hand and shakes hers – she’s clearly worked hard jobs, the calluses built up on the fingers and palm, a couple scars on the knuckles.

            “I’m Darren,” he says, now wondering how much information will satisfy this woman.  After all, he thinks, I didn’t get on this bus to socialize – I got on it to get away.

            “Nice to meet you.”  She pauses, looks him over for a second, sees his California standard blonde hair and tan, the ratty t-shirt and worn jeans.  Not a whole lot different from the guys in any neighborhood in San Diego.  Keeps watching for something out the window, though.  What?

            “Likewise.”  Darren doesn’t need to look her over – he took everything in as soon as she sat down.  Long dark hair, past her shoulders, slightly dark skin, but he can’t place her ethnicity – maybe Latina, maybe Mediterranean – and a funky white t-shirt/sundress combo that makes him think it was the last thing she had on her mind when she left for the bus depot this morning.  But one thing has piqued his curiosity.  “So why’d you say 60 hours?”

            She laughs, taps her fingers on the seat in front of her.  “Oh that.  Just joking – well, sort of.  See, my trip is supposed to be about that long, but for all I know you’re just going to Las Vegas or Phoenix.”

            “Nah.  Not going to either of those places.”

            “Well then.  Good to know.  As for me,” and she makes a dramatic gesture, pointing to herself, “I am headed to the capital of the fine state of New York.”

            Darren feels his blood run cold for a moment.  No, he’s not headed for Albany, and he doesn’t think he’d tell this stranger if he were.  But the state of New York?  Well, that’s on his ticket – and maybe that’s why they are the only two on this particular bus, going coast to coast on this Monday morning.

            “Wow.  That’s a long trip.”  Before he can stifle his curiosity further, he blurts out, “So what could possibly make you go that far?  On a bus no less?”

            “Off to go to school,” she says, patting a bag that’s bursting with books.

            He smirks.  “You know they have schools out here, too.”

            She doesn’t miss a beat.  “I’ve heard.  But sometimes, you gotta get away.  Y’know?”

            Darren nods, remembers his earlier promise to himself to keep his fool mouth shut.

            “Yeah.  Besides, I got a scholarship deal, couldn’t pass it up.”  She digs in her bag for a moment as if searching for something essential.  “How ‘bout you?  You look like you’re about college age.”

            “Age?  Yeah, I guess so.”  Darren is twenty, but for some reason he’s not willing to part with this knowledge.  “But college isn’t for me.”

            “Oh?  What is?”  She looks serious, and Darren feels that cold front in his veins again.  Is she ever going to shut up?  Can’t he just sleep or do his own thing on this trip?

            “Just . . . just doing my own thing.”

            “Oh.”  She doesn’t say anything more for a moment, but he can feel something – disapproval? dismissal? – and he’s sure it’s nothing good.  But why should her opinion matter?  She’s just some stranger he just met on a bus going across the country.

            “Well, good luck with that,” she says, as she pulls a dog-eared book out of her bag and proceeds to read, legs extended to rest on the chair opposite her.

            And sure enough, the first thought that runs through his head is that he wants to defend what he’s doing, even explain why he’s leaving.  But no.  That’s the whole point of his getting on a bus without having told anyone, leaving behind not just his hometown but the events of the last few days, events he’d like to forget but never will.

            As for the college comment, he meant it – he doesn’t want to go, never did, never will, doesn’t think he needs to explain himself to anyone about that.  Problem is, he doesn’t have any clear alternative that he’s pursuing, either – and leaving your past behind isn’t much of a long-term strategy.

            Naomi reads for the next hour – or so Darren guesses, watchless as he is – and does not give even a hint of her earlier interest.  Darren gazes out the window for the whole time, occasionally glancing at his bag and wondering about going through his things.  Did he bring a book with him? he wonders.  He can’t stop thinking about this girl – okay, woman – and how she’s gotten under his skin so easily.  Maybe it’s just nerves, he tells himself; it was a bad weekend, after all.

            As the bus hums along the highway, he starts guessing in his head who this woman might be.  A Salvadoran looking to get away from SoCal and start over?  A second-generation Mexican eager to go to school as far from her parents as humanly possible?  Maybe just an exotic Greek/Italian/Moroccan who likes to travel (and read)?

            Naomi looks up for a moment from her book and locks eyes with Darren.  “I’d offer you something, but I know how you feel about college and all.”  She returns his smirk from earlier.

            He nods his head as if accepting his due, then breaks his promise again.  “So what school will you be going to?”

            “College of Saint Rose.  You probably never heard of it.”

            “No.”

            “Yeah, just a small, Catholic school, right in Albany.”

            “And they gave you a scholarship.”

            “Uh huh.”

            “But no transportation money.”

            “Well, I can’t get too picky.”  She brings her legs close to her body, forming a little ball on her seat, hugging her knees for a moment.  “Getting out is worth the price.”

            “Amen to that.”  He pauses, seeing how his comment might not fit.  “Minus the school part, I mean.”

            “Sure.”  She rocks forward slightly.  “Didn’t mean to be a bitch earlier – sometimes I come across that way, though.  Sorry.”

            “Aw, no, it’s cool,” he says, waving off her apology.

            “I can be a little too curious.  You ever get that way?”

            “Oh yeah.”  He thinks back to Saturday night – way too curious, and now there’s no way to go back and change what he did.

            “Good.  So you can relate.”  She pauses, reaches her hand out again.  “Let’s start over.  I’m Naomi Flores.”

            He responds as before, shaking her hand.  “I’m Darren O’Reilly.  Pleased to meet you.”

            “Likewise,” she says.

            They both drift in and out of sleep for the next few hours, the exhaustion of travel overtaking them in cycles.  Darren begins to feel more at ease, certainly more so than before, but is that because of this young woman’s good-will offering, or is it because he can feel himself getting farther and farther away from San Diego, that place where, if he were there now, he’d most likely be a celebrity of sorts?  He isn’t sure.  He reminds himself to keep a better guard on his thoughts, though, no matter how pleasant this Naomi Flores is.  After all, who is she anyway?  How does he know that he can trust her?  Truth is, he can’t afford to trust anyone right now – that’s the only idea that makes a shred of sense to him as he stares at the long stretch of country, nothing but this past weekend’s disaster behind him, and nothing specific to look forward to once this trip is over.

            During one of Naomi’s intermittent naps, he notices something sticking out of her bag, the corner of a newspaper.  From just a brief glance he can tell it’s the San Diego Union Tribune, the biggest paper in the city.  Nothing particularly notable about that, he thinks, but then he pauses when he sees one of the headlines: ‘Police Suspect Arson.’  He swallows hard, and then questions race through his mind:

            Has she read this article?

            How much do the police really know?

            Was he wearing gloves that night or had he already taken them off when he walked into the building?

            How far away are they from San Diego at this point?

            Could the bus driver maybe pick up the speed a little?

            A tiny bead of sweat forms at the base of his neck, slowly dripping down the back of his t-shirt.  This is going to be one long ride, he thinks.

Published in: on August 17, 2010 at 7:25 pm  Comments (6)  
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Story idea . . . maybe . . .

So the other day I was going to a meeting and felt tired.  Not ideal, and as the meeting really didn’t call for me to do anything apart from listen, I was a bit worried that I was going to fall asleep.  So, in a fit of genius – or who knows, maybe I just randomly picked up the thing – I grabbed my journal just in case.

Now if you’re anything like me, writing while tired is pretty much a disaster.  Drool on the page?  Maybe.  Coherent thoughts?  Not likely.  Somehow, though, as I started jotting down some initial ideas, things coalesced in a nice way.  Now let’s be clear – I’ve only sketched out the story, I haven’t completed it or anything.  Still, it was nice to see the old gray matter working even when normally it wouldn’t.

Here’s what helped me break things down:

1) I decided who my main characters were going to be, limiting them to two.

2) I played around with the characters, speculating on motives and basic plans for each, without committing hard and fast to all of the details.

3) Based on the two characters, I determined whose story it would be and weighed the options of using characters’  internal thoughts.

4) I even spent a little time asking myself, ‘Is this more likely a short story or a novel?’ and imagined both possibilities and what each would require of me.

No magic here, no smoke and mirrors, but a bunch of little ways into a story that now I’m looking forward to writing.

Anyone else have ideas for getting started with a story?

Published in: on August 14, 2010 at 5:39 am  Comments (2)  
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