We got bombed out, and no one slept in New Orleans. There were options, some thirty-something couple with baking-soda aspirations and liquid expressions. They got us high, but no one wanted to stay. Joseph kept talking about seeing it all, making the most of our national derangements. So we trudged forth with foam foreheads, past red-light madams and unsteady senoritas, wandering into paradise only to get caught up in rhetorical oversight. The watered-down excesses and latent bellows, fits of fast-food gas and hemorrhoid streaks from sitting too long down the highway. A rock band for a generation of formulaic villains, who maybe had something to say.
Ray and I switched places at the border. I tried, but couldn’t sleep in the back of the van, not enough bumps along the way. Lester rambled about impact lines, how our audience was only growing. Comparisons rose like steam from glossy magazine pages we stole from good Samaritans. I jerked off to the three-page Margot Robbie spread in a Jackson restroom, with hopes it’d help me play better. Lester read the one-hundred word review like a hungover mockingbird. McHugh’s latest is an Internet romantic’s wet dream, ridden with folky overtones laced in rich topsoil. Distortion layered in a polyphonic bedroom plastered with Life cut-outs.
None of us had heard it yet, but a certain momentum carried Ray’s cigarette ashes out the window, Joseph mumbling optimistic replies in-between half-conscious breaths. Lester wasn’t buying the hype, even though he’d booked the gig. That meant we couldn’t hold anything against him for a while. Nausea kept me in check, a consulting truth that withstood long past convenient store brunches and forsaken accolades. Blair McHugh was another false prophet, experienced before the slings of social media, but far from the trashy realities my band checked on a daily basis. We approached some semblance of adulthood, once paid vacation ran out. Our friends back home would all pretend to care in their own little way.
Austin had a heavy aroma that afternoon, downtown full of potential fans, holding each other close, if only to sweat harder past thrift-store knockoffs. Too much cynicism had rubbed off in the previous twenty-seven years. I wasn’t comfortable letting sidewalk dwellers merely drift past. They were ripe for judgement, misplaced aggression, and the onset of tragedy. I tried to guess what went wrong in their lives, to put them right here and now, in the heart of it all. How many of their reasons would sound the same?
Lester had warned us the previous day not to push his uncle too far in any one direction. Cliff hadn’t cleaned up much, wiping grease clean from his mouth as we stepped in with backpacks and sleeping bags. The corner with the fewest roaches piled up, as I noted the placement of a murky past; magnetic refrigerator grandchildren and an ex-wife who occasionally made house calls. He sat us down on the back porch with tall pounders, grilling dogs and getting all the dirt. Joseph wouldn’t shut-up about Chicago, those rave girls with waning morals.
I chewed silently in the shade, Ray pulling his lawn chair next to mine. “It must be nice to have family like this.”
“Your uncle would house us if he didn’t live five miles away,” I replied.
“Yeah, I guess yours would too,” Ray digested. “So you’re gonna be cool tonight, right?”
“Cool like how?” I jabbed.
“Just that it’s kind of a big deal, isn’t it?”
“I haven’t even listened to the last two Church Shirt records.”
“Me neither, but it’s not like that matters. I think people who are into him will be into us.”
“That’s true even if we weren’t opening tonight.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Ray sighed. “Is it wrong that I want all of this to go well?”
“I find it’s better not to have expectations about anything.”
“Piss off. You’re thinking all of the same things, but for some reason, I’m the asshole bringing them up.”
“Dude, relax. It’s just another gig.” I stood from the grass with a mouthful, rinsing my dish in the kitchen. Cliff and Lester’s voices rose and receded at opposing intervals. These sounds soon blended with traffic, then a fading PA system keeping the fans in check. There weren’t many at The Wild Oak, ample stretching room in front of the stage. The ones that arrived early carried McHugh’s signature displacement; unenthusiastically content that their favorite act had yet to blow up. Radio listeners didn’t read reviews.
Cliff bought us all shots, before I followed Joseph to the back. He was always good at making initial contact. I stood off to the side, nodding along, as promoter, Fred, introduced us to sound guy, Barney. Neither one thought the coincidence nearly as funny. We’d load in, set up and play by nine. That left plenty of time to edge around the borders, beer in hand. I tried not to stare at two college girls giggling by our merchandise. Style aside, they weren’t rowdy enough to derail. I’d met plenty enough to know better, and yet the urge to pick it all apart remained.
Joining Lester for a cigarette out back, we breathed in the pavement. Then another beer, before more wandered in, some with digital ticket stubs flashing on their screens. We’d be cut off soon, left out to dry in the sun and eventually peel away. Each vibe made the scene harder to swallow. This was slowly becoming a thing, and maybe we were that nearly insignificant part of it. I’d been alive long enough to see the unfortunate method by which many fell out of favor with one another.
Their van was nicer than ours; three stately bums with matching sweat stains loading in. Joseph made small talk, the rest of us too chicken shit to ask where Blair McHugh had wandered off. His hired players were all pretty chill, but we didn’t learn their names. Church Shirt wasn’t theirs. They merely sat in so the audience could hear something closer to the album.
Every glossed spectator waited for us to fail between overpriced drinks and flashing selfies, impatient updates anticipating likes that may never see the light of day. Ray was right. We were gaining momentum, but they weren’t buying the CD or seven-inch, not even the T-shirts Bobbi and Millie screen-printed. I rummaged through the blue Tupperware, pulling a green one out to showcase all the available colors. “I think that one’s probably my favorite,” she said.
Looking up, there was different ground beneath us. She’d trimmed her hair a bit, re-dying it blonde if only to make me remember why I’d fallen in love in the first place. “You can have it,” I finally spat.
“It’s free if you tell me what you’re doing here.”
Kat shot me a peculiar look, one I’d nearly forgotten. “What do you mean?” She asked.
“Are you in Austin now?
“No, still Portland.”
“But you’re here.”
“Yeah, I am,” she nodded, before stepping behind the table. I watched her unpack his things; buttons, shirts, CD’s and LP’s, all improperly priced. We didn’t say anything for a good minute, Kat servicing her first customer buying the record everyone was talking about. Saving the money, she finally broke her composure, smiling big. “So how the fuck are you Sydney?”
“Well, they’ll be time to explain things later. Aren’t you guys on soon?”
“Cool. I’m excited.”
“I bet.” I couldn’t handle what it meant, sunken feelings resurfacing with each step through the crowd. Maybe I’d had too many, stomach magnetically aloof, ears swishing around as if underwater. Just as it was before, Kat Wilder wasn’t there for me. I could be a part of the happening, unnaturally balancing on the crosshair between artist and comic relief, but never the guy she came to see. My words blended with others, some thoughtless. No one knew the melody.
Backstage, he’d arrived, no Photoshop to hide the blemishes. Joseph introduced us as I stared through his grainy demeanor, past a cleanly-wasted expression, down to his very core. He was more experienced, but just as stupid. She would never love him. It began to feel like old times, smiling for the camera, playing nice for the band. Blair paid me a compliment, and I pretended not to care, like he hadn’t practiced exactly what to say. Even if they’d only been together a short while, it seemed likely I’d come up. Was his album about her? I’d have to listen to it now.
Some beer and then bottled water, I stopped Lester two steps from the stage. “You knew about this, didn’t you?”
“How do you think we got the show Sydney?”
“Relax, we’re on.”
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to now.”
“All of your best songs are about her. Go with it,” Lester darted past me, straight for his drums.
“They’re not gonna know what hit ‘em,” Joseph nearly clocked me with the neck of his bass.
“We’ll talk after this, alright?” Ray patted me on the back.
“Take a number,” I sighed.
The lights were unflattering, barely blurring an audience of wind-up bohemians. They weren’t ready to take notice, not yet. Clearing my throat, minor applause dispersed, all except hers from the corner. Kat had a unique way of making a big deal. I smiled and played our first song loud, then our second even noisier. The lyrics were suddenly meaningless, pouring out in half-drunken gasps, barely grazing their shaved foreheads. We did everything by the book, beyond aware there’d be enough money to eat and put gas in the van. I was supposed to be grateful, to let them have this one, because circumstances only mattered if I let them.
Blair and the boys were thrilled when we finished; the room properly amped, despite recent exposure. The right journalist could make this about more than a couple of bands masturbating, but no one gave a shit about the two of us before the advent of fashion. We were city folk now, traveling but far from weary, and all of it had been told the same way many times. Perhaps my record paled in comparison, although I probably had a few more in me than him.
My guitar nearly toppled over as I darted out the back door and lit a cigarette. Waiting a few puffs, I walked down the alley, expecting the echo of apologies and grievances. Maybe they were sorting just as many things out. I thought about my band and their lives almost as much as I thought about her. We were all connected through friends of friends, choosing to keep in touch or disengage completely. She understood why I couldn’t follow her feed anymore. I’d gotten good at pretending we’d almost never met, two years turning inward when flame hit filter.
“A lot of fucking fuss for you guys,” Uncle Cliff leaned against the bricks, bottle of beer in hand.
“Ya know, I don’t think you’re supposed to drink outside.”
“What are they gonna do about it? I’m with the band, remember?”
“How do you think we sounded?”
“Loud, like you needed them to care.”
“Yeah, but I really don’t.”
“Funny, I don’t believe you.”
“We’re never gonna fit into whatever it is they need. Maybe for some, but definitely not all of them.”
“You seem like the type of guy who enjoys shooting himself in the foot.”
“If only I got the chance to before somebody else did it for me.”
“Now that sounds like a pity party to me, sorry to say I forgot my ticket.” He swigged his beer, then set it gently on the asphalt. “You may wanna wait and see just how sad life can really get first.”
I couldn’t respond, my throat chalky. Cliff walked back in, unflinching. I wanted him to tell an anecdote, some sentimental hogwash about how his family got away from him. He didn’t have to sleep on the floor that night, though, to be somewhere else the next day, uniformly flushed and uncertain of whether or not enough was said. I catalogued my responses like a computer seeking satisfaction. How would I press her buttons after she’d already switched me off for the night?
I got a few accommodations at the bar; nothing a few hours wouldn’t stifle. They didn’t need my autograph or proof of purchase. The album would sound the same in their car or home stereo. I’d given what I could that night; the rest was biology. Scanning tank tops and belly shirts, I needed to find just the right one. Younger than us, but still emotionally distraught, full of energy, and optimistic frustration; the kind of girl she used to be before we let our surroundings have a say.
Thirty minutes passed in-between sips, then they went on. The kids jumped and swayed while others snapped and stood firm. They weren’t the most thrilling act, somber numbers swelling to Blair’s crusty howl. I didn’t like any of the new stuff; too many words, not enough melody or structure. It was as if a novice fell in love and fabricated ballads from the dirt. I pictured their pillow talk, how he was probably like the ones that came before. A plush array of candied narcissists with unending insecurities, coveting her company, then returning to the dim night without so much as a scar to show for it. Fucking amateurs; they didn’t know what it meant to be unsettled.
Ignoring became difficult when they played one I recognized. Kat had put it on a CD for me a few birthdays back. I listened to every song with hopes of deciphering subliminal truths. Perhaps it was fruitless, something to keep my brain in check. I didn’t care. We both needed ideas about each other to function better socially. I could never quite figure hers out, while mine went unnoticed even on the surface.
“Hey,” Kat startled me. “You guys were really great tonight.”
“Thanks,” I nearly shouted back.
“So do you wanna go outside with me?”
“Won’t we miss this?”
“It’s fine. I hear the same songs every night. C’mon.” She set her cocktail down on the bar next to my beer. I’d forgotten what it was like trailing her through the crowd, watching those slender hips squeeze between bodies with an uncharted elegance quickly tossed aside in the heat of alcoholic remorse. Kat could strut through fire, and I’d breathe in her ashes before following suit. “There, isn’t this better?” She sighed on the street.
“So that song you played third, was that new?”
“I really liked it.”
“Do you have a cigarette? I just ran out.”
“Yeah,” I handed her one before we inhaled together. “So I didn’t know about all of this.”
“I think Lester wanted you to be surprised. He told me not to say anything.”
“Yeah, why break the silence now?”
“Don’t act like it’s not good to see me.”
“I’ve been out in the world too long. It’s not good to see anyone.”
“You guys are about done, though, right?”
“Three more days. Long drives.”
“Well, I hope you intend to throw down tonight.”
“Yeah, I guess we will.” She smirked, glancing at the ground. “How’s everyone back home?”
“It’s been two weeks, how would I know? Shit’s probably up in the air.”
“I miss all of it, ya know?”
“You seem to be pretty content with what’s right in front of ya.”
“Don’t make that assumption.”
“You’re right. I don’t know why I’m being this way right now. Things have been good, or at least better than what I’m used to. It’ll be weird going back to work and everything, though. I’m not sure if I’m ever fully adjusted.”
“You’re not supposed to be, Sydney.”
“Life’s good, though, right? I mean, if there’s something you think I need to know, now would be the time to tell me.”
“Yeah, I think I’m good,” Kat glanced at the passing cars.
“I suppose I am too.”
We smoked in unison, before diving back a bit. Reminiscing was more beneficial to her. Those same stories came up every few months, although most of our friends were finely-tuned. They wouldn’t mention her in or out of context. I wondered if it’d be the same had I broken a heart or two along the way. There were ones we didn’t see much anymore, choosing exile over social obligation. Most of them didn’t live alone.
She started in on Portland, all the bullshit in-betweens. Some subtle trust issues came forth, talk of faces I wouldn’t ever know. I said I’d like to visit sometime. Perhaps in a year or two, it’d be true. Nervously putting her butt out, Kat already had ideas for places and things I’d never want to see. I didn’t know what questions to ask, afraid of whatever answers unintentionally surfaced. One song ended before another began. She perked up and suggested we go back in. I’d be right behind her.
My last few drags held ground, a mix of profound ease and unfortunate awareness. I strutted back down the alleyway and pissed a few paces from the door, zipping up just as Ray stepped out. “Looks like everyone’s missing the show out here,” he said.
“I can assure you it’s not gonna be as good as the eleven o’clock performance.”
“Never mind,” I joined him against the bricks and took a breath.
“So where were you?”
“Talking to Kat.”
“How was all that?”
“Not as bad as it will be later.”
“You should be happy about what happened tonight. We did really well.”
“Good for us,” I pined.
“It is, man, and whatever’s happening with all that other shit… Well, it isn’t gonna mean as much tomorrow.”
“I want that to be true, but right now I don’t think it can be.”
“Well either way, please don’t take this out on us.”
“When do I ever take it out on any of you? If anything, I get it from everyone else.”
“That’s because we know you need it sometimes,” Ray said. “Tonight was probably our best show yet.”
“Who cares? We’ll play for fucking six kids in some garage tomorrow.”
“And that’ll be fun too.”
“I was really hoping just to be alone and depressed for a while. Ya know, that’s kind of why I was out here.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Oh yeah, what’s your excuse?”
“No shit. Did you just find out?”
“Like four days ago.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell any of us?”
“Because I didn’t wanna get shit.”
“How do you mean?”
“In like seven months we won’t be able to do this as often.”
“I hope that true, because I fucking hate doing this.”
Ray laughed a little. “Ya know what’s a real shame, though?”
“We ran out of grass in Kentucky.”
“Yeah, if there’s any tragedy tonight, it’s definitely that.”
He talked awhile about where his head was, and I listened. We watched the encore from the side of the stage. When she found me again, I pretended liked we’d all arrived together; troubled fanatics on a dense trek through the foliage. Watching Kat blend and react with some of my best friends, I realized it could have been any one of us. Different circumstances and Joseph or Lester would be writing the songs while I’d play along. Blair McHugh would never understand, but talked like he did for the night’s duration. He gave us albums for free, mine remaining in the shrink wrap to this day.