Carmen on The Couch
I come home to find Carmen bleeding on the couch .The dusky pink mohair looks muddy and worn and dark viscous liquid pools glistening on the floor. Aside from her gaping head wound Carmen looks pretty much like she always has, with smooth caramel skin and flashing dark eyes.
Back in the way the world used to be, Carmen and I worked together in a Quonset hut on a hill .The Quonset hut housed a day care center for the children of migrant farm workers and it was made of a cheap corrugated tin that amplified the sound of summer rain. Sunsets were often beautiful at the migrant camp and sometimes I would sit idly on a swing after the center closed, watching as whisky was poured into bright red cans half full of coca cola. Silver harmonicas would be pulled from the pockets of dirt caked jeans while battered guitars were carefully tuned .The purple and pink sky would fill with song and Carmen was always the belle of this after hours ball, laughing and flirting with the fruit pickers who clustered around the splintered wooden steps of the other Quonset huts, as her husband Carlos glowered nearby.
Carmen’s sense of style has evolved since those sultry days. Gone are the cheap clingy dresses that used to wrap her like a second skin. Tonight she is wearing buckled pirate boots and a soft fishnet sweater in turquoise, black and orange that seems to be woven of clouds and air.
I frown at the stains on my art deco couch, a recent hard won acquisition .I picked the wrong time to buy a house and every pretty thing, every bit of paint and trimming has come slowly and at great sacrifice .I stare sadly at the crimson of my newly refinished floor. The sky outside is dark and velvet and I know that if I were to peek through the curtains I would not be able to see a single star.
“Relax ” says Carmen with an exasperated air as she shifts to an upright position. I turn my gaze from the windows back to her. She tilts her head so that I can no longer see the bloody mass of tangled hair and I am struck by how pretty she is.
“This will all be gone when I leave”, she says, waving a hand airily at the mess. She snaps her fingers.
“It’s against the rules to leave evidence behind”.
I collapse into the wrought iron chair with purple and green striped cushions that I rescued from some back alley yard sale. I stare hard at Carmen. I know I should be surprised to see her but I am not .I watch carefully as insolence curves her full lips into a half smile
“You have rules “?
“Well think about it”. Carmen’s voice is laced with just a touch of scorn.
“If I didn’t clean up you could bring in experts. There would be DNA analysis. Scientific reports .Our power lies in the suspension of disbelief. It’s so much more effective to just fuck with your head”.
I glance at the windows again, wishing I had the ability to walk through walls. I turn my attention back to Carmen. Given her punkish attire I suspect that her appearance on my couch has something to do with Johnny’s most recent nocturnal visit .She must have run into him somewhere. How else could she have gotten this address? I lean back in the chair and close my eyes for a second, half hoping that she will be gone when I open them .I am very tired. It has only been 3 days and 2 nights since I was last awakened by a great blaze of light in the living room and I have not been able to sleep well since. This incandescent glare was accompanied by a pop of noise and Johnny appeared by the side of my bed just as the light began to seep into the four corners of my bedroom. His long dark hair was tangled and he was wearing a black sleeveless t shirt that had Let It Rock spelled out across the front in chicken bones and bits of silver chain .I recognized the shirt from pictures that I had seen in magazines and knew that he’d worn it as a form of apology. I had always wanted one and Johnny was not the sort of boy who would ever be able to form the words I’m sorry and let them escape form his lips. He trembled slightly as he stared down at me with dark pleading eyes, watching my confusion with his arms folded tightly across his chest. Then he faded into nothingness as the eerie gold phosphorescence that surrounded him dissipated into the harsh morning sunlight of accidentally sleeping in.
“So where did you meet him”, I ask Carmen.
“At Seditionaries on Kings Road “says Carmen, referring to a legendary British boutique that’s been closed since 1980.Carmen smiles with pride and tosses her hair just like she used to, flaring her nostrils and shrugging one shoulder.
“I can go anywhere now. London, the 70s. You’re the one who’s stuck,” she sneers, zeroing in with psychic aplomb on my current struggles with an underwater mortgage in a collapsing economy. She extends one arm so that I can admire the intricate weave of a sweater that is now, like Johnny’s chicken bone t shirt, wonderfully rare and impossible to find.
“But you’re fucking dead”, I point out as my patience wears spider web thin. The thought that Johnny might be handing my number out to any ghost with an axe to grind is more than I can bear. Try as I might I cannot turn myself into someone who does not notice them .I put salt in the corners and lemon slices on the windowsills. Every night I set a cup of water by the side of the bed and in the morning I carefully toss it over my left shoulder into the kitchen sink. Sometimes Johnny watches me from the ceiling, laughingly pointing out that these tricks only work for your average wailing woman in white or the kind of 1940s ghost that you might see lurking about in a corn field with a fedora pulled down low. I try to ignore him but it’s hard.
Carmen’s smile vanishes and her eyes well up with tears. I am instantly sorry that I’ve brought this up.
Back in the camp Carmen used to wield her voluptuous little body like a weapon, regaling everyone with her take on the art of living as she sashayed around the room.
“When Carlos comes at me I always make sure that he hits me in the nose right away “she would say.” It bleeds real easy and Carlos can’t stand the sight of blood. He always buys me a new dress and takes me out to dinner at Taco Bell afterwards” .She would roll her eyes at my talk of shelters and sliding scale therapy and never once did she show up at any of the women’s meetings that I set up with Trina, the raven haired beauty who directed the day care center. One evening, not too long after I ‘d decamped for the east coast in pursuit of a degree in jazz composition Carlos went too far, bashing Carmen’s head in against the the kitchen sink.
“You always had options, ” whispers Carmen.
“You always will “. I cringe slightly as she wipes her eyes with the sleeve of the sweater and then I grip the arms of the chair so that she will not notice. It is not an early Vivienne Westwood piece worth thousands of dollars to Carmen .It is just a sweater purchased on the Kings Road for less than 20 pounds.
“Johnny told me what happened”. Carmen’s eyes turns crafty and just a little bit cruel .I grip the sides of the chair a bit harder now as I try not to drown in memory, Johnny dissolving into helpless laughter over a childish prank played on a friend, Johnny nodding out at a restaurant, Johnny playing guitar, his face completely obscured by a curtain of ink black hair and Johnny with his fist raised, blood dripping slowly from the 5 pointed star that had been carved into his arm by some demon he could not contain. I was a girl who could never be hit and quick as a kiss, Johnny had taken that notion away. Carmen’s triumphant smile suggests that gloating ghosts and bloody stars, clenched fists and ruined couches are somehow all my fault and on a night like this, I cannot help but wonder if she is right.
“No, you were right “whispers Carmen, suddenly subdued .I look up startled, then I relax a little as I remember that words are not always necessary for communication.
“You were right “, she continues, but I was always just some sort of project to you .You never really wanted to be my friend”
It’s true .The thought of Carmen in a sleazy red dress, laughing under harsh fast food light used to fill me with a despair that I could not even begin to understand or explain. Even now, I just want her to go. I am probably a better person now than I was when I rocked babies to sleep with Carmen in the migrant camp but most days I ‘d give anything to be the girl I was before Johnny blew his head off in the kitchen, leaving behind a note that said it was somebody’s else’s turn to clean up.
I close my eyes as the stereo clicks on by itself. I have gotten sort of used to this. Sometimes I recognize the songs and sometimes I don’t. This time I recognize the lyrics and melody as my own and I recognize the sound of Johnny’s razor sharp guitar. But the voice that wraps itself around my words is unfamiliar, husky dark and fiercely beautiful.
“Scream it like a whisper
Whisper like a sigh
Baby baby baby do you really want to die
Oh no I know
No no I know
Baby baby baby only wants to watch me cry” .
I open my eyes as the song starts to fade. Carmen is gone and couch and floor are shiny and clean.
“Damn”, I whisper softly to the disappearing midnight of the sky.” I never even knew she could sing”.
We descend into blackness. You cannot see the moon or a single star. The trees form a tight laced canopy overhead and although I can hear cars rushing by on the highway alongside the bike path, their headlights cannot cut through this tunnel of 3 am. I rest my feet on the pedals of my trek hybrid and fly through the dark speeding downhill faster and faster. I cannot see Lamar in front of me but I am sure that he has his hands in the air. “Working with you is like falling down into the deepest pits of hell,” he had snarled earlier in the evening as we began to wrangle over my guitar parts on particular song. But all of that is forgotten as moon and headlights burst through the dark to illuminate a path that glows with an almost supernatural light. I coast up to where Lamar is idling. “What’s the point of racing ahead if you just have to slow down and wait for me?”
“Girls just don’t have that jump up and hit the awning thing.” There is a hint of exasperation mixed with the affection in his voice, but he laughs as he takes off again and it’s clear that this post midnight bike ride has soothed him like a heroin honeymoon. He has left those contentious guitar parts behind somewhere and I know that tonight’s musical controversy will not surface again. We wind around and around the path until we are spit out onto empty streets. There are no UPS trucks to dodge, no honking drivers angered by our relative youth and agility. We can ride wherever we want to. The city belongs to us.
We have moved from Q Division back to the yellow clapboard house that’s sits on the edge of the ghetto in Jamaica plain. Squid Hell is owned by a lanky Kentuckian named Dicky Spears who has long brown hair and the charm of a true southern gentleman. He runs point on Lamar’s 10% days and he can calm a fevered room just by walking through the door. He has removed various walls and ceilings in his house to create a towering drum pit and he has hired a legendary audio genius to turn what once a living room into a control room. He lives upstairs.
There is an abandoned lot full of tall grassy weeds across the street and just half a block away there is a tiny run down store full of little Debbie chocolate cakes and fried snacks of lurid hue. Lamar goes there to buy cigarettes and plastic bottles of blue sugar water. He smokes the cigarettes but he just lines the little bottles up on the windowsills and the lip of the console. “Blue drink!” He will shout at times as if the very mention of this bright sugar water is enough to shake the musical cobwebs from his brain. I find blue drink depressing but I don’t question Lamar’s obsession with it, just like he doesn’t question my pockets full of sea glass or my inability to cut vocals when my favorite X-Girl t-shirt is in the wash. It is summer, an endless summer of nothing but bicycles and song, squalling guitars resonating up through the drum pit, yellow legal pads full of scribbled lyrics scattered amidst the total absence of the mundane everyday. Squid Hell shelters us from bills and bars and gossip girls in a way that Q Division could not. We are always surprised and pleased to find the sweet sun bathing the front porch when we venture outside to take a break, eyes blinking into yellow light and tight limbs uncurling to stretch into warmth.
But Lamar has not forgotten how to rumble and I cannot control the demon of insecurity that only sleeps peacefully in the sea of my psyche on alternate afternoons when the moon is not full. “These vocal suck,” I exclaim on a Thursday evening as Lamar pulls the faders up. We are edging closer to mix down time, a time when this summer idyll will end and I will be left with a product that cannot be altered on a daily basis.
“You’re nuts,” says Lamar. “You were perfectly fine with these yesterday.” It is true but the air sounds different today. The tiny buzzes and hums of traffic and sirens and air conditioning units are slightly different than they were yesterday and they form a backdrop, a base pitch that makes the vocal sound slightly askew. I do not for a minute believe that Lamar cannot hear this. My mood turns darker as I realize that I will have no control over anyone’s listening experience. They might not hear what I want them to hear. There will be other cars and appliances and heating systems, ambulances and crickets and cicadas, crying babies and laughing children – everything with its own pitch and resonance. The horror of this hits me hard. What is the point, whatever is the point of this if things can’t be perfectly in tune? And what if all the sounds of anyone’s particular world make my voice sound whiny sharp and thin?
“You obviously don’t give a fuck.” I raise my voice as the interns freeze and shoot each other significant glances. “You just want to rush through this so you can run off to Australia as soon as you can.”
Lamar lights a cigarette and looks at me with disdain. He shoves the crumpled cellophane pack back into the pocket of his khaki cargo shorts and scoots the wheeled studio chair to the back of the room so that smoke will not hover over the console. “These were fine yesterday,” he says, his measured voice as calm and still as the sky before the sirens start to wail. The interns develop a sudden insatiable craving for pad thai and they are out the back door in a flash.
“Fine? You think they‘re fine? I don’t want to make a record that’s fine. I do not want to sound fine.” I felt like I might burst into tears but I know from experience that this will be an unpopular move. How did I get here with a real deal and a real budget when I suck so hard? I am making a record that will be proof positive of my inherent inferiority forever and ever amen. I cannot control the tornado of rage and despair that twists through me like a funnel cloud. “These vocal tracks suck!” I shriek at Lamar. “And if you don’t think they suck, then you suck too. I can’t work with you anymore. You’re just humoring me so you can get out of here!”
Lamar stays silent and I can see that I have gone too far. He puts out his cigarette and begins to strike the board as the back door slams. Lamar’s wife Terri hesitates in the archway. The vibe in the air is as thick as smoke from 1000 cigarettes.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she says tentatively, “but I had a huge fight with Radio and now I’ve got an extra ticket to see Hole at the Orpheum tonight.”
“You’re not interrupting anything,” says Lamar, his drawl now as icy as the New England winters he is so desperate to escape from, “because we are done. Go see Courtney.” He shakes his head and laughs to himself at the perfect symmetry of this. One bitch to another. Humorless sea hags united.
“I’m sorry,” says Terri as we climb into the car. I know what a hard-ass he can be. Terri and Lamar have not been getting along, and the fact that he is leaving the country while she has a 19 year old boyfriend pretty much sums up the state of their affairs. Terri checks her reflection in the mirror and runs her hand through her long light brown curls. She attempts a reassuring smile. Mascara fringes her sea green eyes and her honey color skin glows in the circle of light cast by the street lamp as she twists the key in the ignition. In a state of high agitation, I recount the evening’s argument.
“Um, so you’re mad at Lamar because he doesn’t think you suck?” She says carefully as she eases onto the J-Way. I deflate suddenly. The fact that Lamar’s devastated soon to be ex-wife is taking his side stops me in my tracks. “You just need a break,” says Terri. This will be the perfect thing, try to get away from it for a while.
I slump into my seat. She‘s right. It isn’t even Lamar, music has turned on me .It has happened before and it will happen again. Something wondrous and magical has been trampled into dust by an air conditioner’s hum and there is nothing I can do about it. At a certain point we will run out of money and the will to fight and the record will be done by default, the final mixes the product of spent financial and emotional resources. Right now, at this very instant, I do not see how I am going to be able to live with this, but maybe Terri is right. Maybe I just need a break.
We pull into the parking lot behind the Orpheum. Terri has backstage passes. Someone always has backstage passes. I am still feeling bad as we descend the stairs.
“Fuck Lamar,” says Terri cheerfully as she spots Drew Barrymore over by the buffet table. Her incandescent beauty lights up the room, bright red sloppy ponytail, ringer T shirt, an A-line mini skirt and clunky cork platforms. The band is nowhere to be found. Terri is cheered by the backstage scene, by all the beautiful people in pretty clothes.
“You know if you couldn’t sing, if you really couldn’t sing,” she says with an air of practicality as she pulls a bottle of beer from a bucket of ice, “you probably wouldn’t have gotten a record deal.”
I stare at Terri as she raises the bottle of beer to lips that have been outlined in Mac lip liner. It’s a color called Spice that we are all awfully fond of at the moment. I have the identical color in my bag somewhere though at present my own mouth is devoid of color. “So you’re saying I’m not pretty enough to be the kind of girl who gets a deal even though she can’t sing.”
“Wow!” says Terri. “You’re good. That is so messed up.” She burst into laughter. “Let’s go find our seats.” She links her arm through mine and the spell is broken. I have been acting like a perfect fool.
Courtney is resplendent, incendiary and as soon as she opens her mouth I forgive Lamar. It is not his fault that the air makes noise and sending me here with Terri was the right thing to do, even if he did it for the wrong reasons.
She is on fire, stunningly beautiful, howling in a white silk slip as she clings to a black Rickenbacker guitar. As she plants her Mary Jane on top of the monitor speaker and shakes her platinum hair out of her eyes, I am amazed that I almost missed this in order to stay at Squid Hell and scream at Lamar. Cause Courtney is screaming for all of us. Courtney is screaming at the Sky. She rolls around on her back as plays guitar and suggests to some front row fans who bring up his name that Trent should think of changing the name of his band to 3 Inch Nails. Rumor has it they’ve been having an affair. She is in her glory, of the moment, screaming for all the little girls who were dragged down the garden path or who dove into mosh pits only to have their dreams of flight shattered by groping hands. She screams for the girls who will come to find out the hard way that Law and Order SVU is only a TV show and that Ice-T is never gonna be there when they really need him.
In or out of tune isn’t an issue for Courtney. She obviously doesn’t give a fuck. I know I could never be like her, that I will never be able to alter the compulsions that rule my life. But after the show I feel like I can maybe learn to live with them.
“He won’t remember any of tonight tomorrow,” says Terri as we wait patiently in line with throngs of exhilarated girls in babydoll dresses and little plastic barrettes to exit the theater. I smile at her, relaxed and drained. It’s true, as good as Lamar can be at malice and mockery; he isn’t very good at holding a grudge. Tomorrow is another day and the air will be resonating at a different frequency. Maybe it will be one that matches up with my own.
The Random Ant
Billy smiles at me. His hair is tangled and he is wearing a long black wool overcoat that covers him like a cloak. His dark eyes glitter, all pupil and no iris. They seem to have silver stars or points of light in the center that catch the dim lights of the Smart Bar. I know that people’s eyes are not supposed to look like this, but I don’t care.
He grabs my hand like it’s something he does everyday, like it hasn’t been months since he’s last seen me. He holds it for a second as he looks at me, laughing softly and shaking his head like I’m too good to be true. Then he drags me over to where Mike from Lycia is sitting hunched in a vinyl booth by the soundboard looking morose.
“I don’t know why these people follow me around,” says Mike, nodding at a man wearing an actual cloak and an Edwardian hat with a long, feathered plume who is engrossed in conversation with a young girl in a white satin wedding dress. I have seen variations of the wedding dress girl in nearly every club we’ve played on this tour and I always wonder: why? Why only one girl? Why is there never two or three or none? Does every Goth scene in every town have one girl who is the designated wedding dress girl? Or do they take turns, calling each other before each show to plot and plan? Old wedding dresses are certainly easy enough to find, in thrift stores and resale shops, expensive pieces of silk and lace and pearls that are practically worthless by the time the honeymoon is over. All the other girls wear tight black pleather and t-shirts with silver band logos, or black fishnets and tight low-cut dresses that expose their blue white skin. One of them carries a black silk parasol. The boys have long floppy bangs that partially obscure grey complexions or towering mohawks circa London 1977. Nobody radiates health or happiness. Mike is wearing jeans and an old flannel shirt, his normal stage attire. His long thick light brown hair is pulled back into a ponytail but the Goth’s don’t care. They adore him anyway. He continues to stare dejectedly at his fans like he is only dreaming of the evening’s end when he can finally run away from them.
“How many Goth’s does it take to change a light bulb?” I hear laughter behind me and turn to see Aaron, Lycia’s merch guy, who extends a hand for Billy to shake. “None,” he crows before I can even attempt an answer. “They just sit in the dark and cry.” Billy cracks a half smile and I give Aaron a playful shove. Aaron is very slight with huge brown eyes and pale hair that hangs limp on the side of his head that is not shaved. He is only 19 and was very disappointed to find out that I am not as young as I look. I am grateful for this built in fence. The day-to-day world of a touring band is very very small. Billy apologizes to Mike for the fact that he is going to be missing Lycia’s set. I am glad that I am going to be missing Lycia’s noxious smoke machine. Smart bar is not very big. I glance around the small dark room, at the raised DJ booth and the polished red bar. Dim blue light casts shadows on the dancers as they twirl around the floor to the steady thump of 120 bpm. I half listen as Aaron cracks another Goth light bulb joke. The answer to this one involves him turning in slow small circles while he waves his hands in the air.
I am anxious to leave. I see Mike and Aaron every day. Billy, on the other hand is something distant and rare. I am still shy about initiating phone calls and sometimes weeks and months will go by without a word. This rarely bothers me. Time has taken on a very strange shape lately and I never know what day of the week it is. The hours are crowded with sound checks and restaurants and phone calls and decisions. Missing someone is hard.
We are not playing tonight because we have too many instruments for the tiny stage, so the industrial dance music pumping through the speakers is our replacement. I am glad for the break. Our gig last night at the Beachcomber in Columbus is to be our last for three days and we made a B line for Chicago as soon as our set was over, driving late into the night across the flat Midwestern terrain. A sliver of moon graced an indigo sky as I forced myself to stay wake and chatter so that Adam would not fall asleep at the wheel. It was nearly four am when we arrived at the rock and roll Days Inn on Diversey Ave. The night clerk had long red hair and long black fingernails and she immediately gave as the band discount as we straggled up to the check out desk in the lobby. We didn’t even have to ask. This morning after waking and showering and arguing with my manager on the phone, I rode the elevator down to the lobby with most of the members of L7 who were filthy, glamorous and obviously high. I recognized Gail from her days in Boston with Belly. They all wore sunglasses. I nodded hello at them and then stared at the toes of my boots as none of them responded in any way, shape or form.
Now Billy drags me out onto the sidewalk. He flings his arm up as a yellow cab glides up to us and we clamber in to the back seat. I fall against him as the cab takes off and Billy smiles that crooked half smile again. I straighten up immediately. It’s a short distance to his third floor walk-up on Ashland Ave. I follow him up the winding stairs holding onto the crooked wooden handrail.
Given his general air of stylish dishevelment, I am surprised to see that Billy’s apartment is neat as a pin. There is nothing out of place. I turn down his offer of a drink and he lights a joint. Billy doesn’t roll joints like a New Yorker. He rolls a spliff and sits down next to me on the couch. I shake my head as he offers it. I cannot indulge while I am on tour. The only way I can survive touring is with a very strict discipline. No alcohol, no weed, no coffee, god help the person who dares to light a cigarette around me and whoever is driving is not allowed to bitch about the number of pit stops required of person who drinks nearly a gallon of room temperature spring water every day. I will only eat vegetables, fruit, grains and fish and every night Michael will smile disarmingly at the waitress in whatever roadside establishment we find ourselves in and say, “Here’s the million dollar question, do you cook your vegetables on a separate grill from the meat?”
“Where‘s my million dollars?” the waitress would say flirtatiously if the answer was affirmative. Michael’s charm is such that one night in Buffalo, the waitress rushed over to our table just before we were served to confess that she lied. Michael is more than happy to take on this chore. We found out early on that this same request coming from a tall skinny girl who was obviously fronting a band was enough to send your average waitress into a tailspin of fury.
Billy takes a hit off his joint and picks up a remote that is lying on the coffee table. “I have to show you this,” he says excitedly. He flicks on Cibo Matto’s Sugar Water video and I am delighted. I do not own a television so I rarely get to see videos. This one has a split screen and half of it runs in reverse time. Yuka takes a shower as Miho pours a box of sugar over her head. The sugar flies back up into a pink and white box as she places it high on a dull green shelf. Then Yuka slips into a blue t shirt dress and dons a pair of huge sunglasses, the epitome of downtown cool. Billy touches my shoulder very lightly when Miho is discovered lying in the street in a red dress, holding a flyer that spells out “you killed me” in letters that have been cut and pasted from magazines. Yuka looks distraught but happily the video begins to reverse and soon Yuka and Miho are back in their apartments taking sugar water showers again.
“The buildings are turning into coconut trees,” sings Miho as Billy smiles at me like I am something breakable and rare, something to be cherished and protected. His eyes still glitter in that strange silvery way but his movements are precise and his speech is not slurred. Everybody is wrong about him; I think as he rewinds the video for the seventh time.
The next night, Dannie throws a party for us at his penthouse apartment above the label office. Billy shows up wearing a newsboy cap pulled down low over one eye and square black glasses with no lenses. All the members of Sister Machine Gun are there along with Billy’s roommate Pat, who works as a publicist for Lycia’s label. He also plays in a band with Billy and I know that he agreed to give us the opening slot on the Lycia tour at Billy’s urging.
Dannie is the consummate host. There are cold pitchers of margaritas in the kitchen and silver bowls full of foil wrapped chocolates on the coffee table. He has orchestrated the arrival of Indian food from his favorite restaurant on Devon Ave. The CD player thumps out techno and everyone is animated. Jen looks beautiful as she dons a pair of sunglasses that once belonged to Divine. She is wearing tight black pants and a striped green t-shirt and the tungsten light casts a glow on her long red hair as she flicks a leather braided whip that once belonged to Marc Bolan at Adam who is dissolving into a weed assisted fit of giggles on Dannie’s art deco couch. Dannie loves to show off his collection of rare and wondrous objects and he invites me to try on a pair of rhinestone encrusted converse sneakers that once belonged to Sid Vicious. Billy smiles at me like I’m some kind of Cinderella as I lace them up. They fit perfectly.
Billy stays on as Pat and the members of SMG begin to drift away into the night and suddenly Dannie jumps up from the couch. He has something new he wants to show us. He runs downstairs to his office and comes back with a box containing a set of 12 neatly hand lettered homemade cassettes. “These are from The Random Ant,” he says proudly. Billy straightens up on the couch instantly transfixed.
Dannie reads from The Random Ants bio. The Random Ant is 52 years old and lives in South Carolina. He is a direct descendant of Elvis Presley. The set of a cassette tapes are meant to be a clarion call to the ant goddess of his dreams. The Random Ant has done everything in his power to find her. He has even had his mother make him ant costumes that he wears while performing so that the ant goddess might recognize him. Alas this has all come to no avail, and so now The Random Ant is seeking a record deal. Surely with the help of label, the ant goddess will find The Random Ant.
Dannie turns off the CD player and puts in a tape. It’s so maddeningly awful that it slips around the corner into brilliance. The Random Ant calls out to the ant goddess in a thin screeching voice that probably sounds a lot like what an ant would sound like if an ant could sing. He begs and pleads tunelessly over nothing but an acoustic guitar.
Billy is wild with jealousy. He must have a set of these cassettes for his very own. If The Random Ant is looking for a deal then it would stand to reason that there are more tapes and it would stand to reason that there is contact info on the letter that Dannie has been reading.
“Can I see that bio?” he asks innocently.
“Not a chance,” drawls Dannie. He knows Billy well. He takes The Random Ant cassette out of the tape player and soon house music is pounding through the apartment. He carries the box of cassettes back downstairs, but when he comes back upstairs I can see that The Random Ant’s letter is still sticking out of Dannie’s back pocket.
Billy is crafty, he bides his time. Joints continue to circulate and margaritas continue to be replenished and when Dannie gets up at one point to head to the kitchen, Billy is behind him in a flash. He deftly pulls the letter out of Dannie’s back pockets and is dialing the contact number at the bottom almost before Dannie knows that he has it.
“Give that back,” he howls, lunging for Billy, but Dannie is drunk and Billy is quick. He pivots out of reach as Dannie collapses in a fit of laughter on the couch. It is now nearly three am. I am not sure what time it is in South Carolina, but I do know that it is very very late.
“Don’t you dare mention my label!” howls Dannie from the couch. It is one thing to treasure your very own set of The Random Ant tapes, but Dannie has no intention of adding The Random Ant to the motley crew of characters who populate his world on a daily basis. The phone rings and rings and suddenly Billy’s face lights up.
“Yes this is Billy Rabin calling from Wax Trax Records,” he says, his voice suddenly formalistic. I would like to speak to The Random Ant.
“Leave my label out of it!” shouts Dannie, but laughter threatens to drown him out and it is clear that he is not angry ay Billy.
“Yes, I see.” says Billy in a precise and proper tone, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. “The Random Ant just joined the army,” he whispers. “I am talking to his mother.”
“How could The Random Ant have joined the army if he’s 52?” I wonder aloud but no one is listening. All eyes are fixed on Billy.
“We are just so excited by these songs. It is exactly the sort of thing that the label is looking for right now,” he says.” We would like to circulate it among our radio and publicity departments and get their feedback. Would it be possible to get another set of tapes?”
“Stop, oh those poor people,” says Dannie, but his voice is weak with laughter and it is clear that there is no stopping Billy, who is now carefully spelling out his own name and address for The Random Ant’s mother. I inch a little closer to him and I can now hear the voice of a very sleepy older woman who is clearly thrilled that her son is about to become a star, but now very worried that a four-year stint in the army might interfere with his future stardom. Billy smiles and assures her that the label will wait forever before hanging up the phone.
The Wizard of Jacks Rock
It is unusually warm for the day after thanksgiving in Tomkins Cove New York. The wizard wakes up early, pleased with the pale color of dawn that peeks through the torn curtains. He rolls out of bed and heads towards the kitchen. Last night his buddy Ryan left a cell phone message saying that Rods brothers and sisters were in town and the wizard likes to be prepared.
Rod had a musician sister in Chicago, a brother who lives in a mansion in Detroit that Rod had helped to renovate and a brother in North Carolina who owns a tai chi retreat. The wizard himself would not say no to music or mansions or even tai chi. Maybe he will get out of here for a while someday. He rolls a skinny pin joint and pours a shot of jack into his coffee as the sun steals the dawn away from the sky and the morning fills up with the lonesome sound of train whistles and birds and heavy metal radio. He dreams idly of Caitlin, with her long dirty blond hair and her pink scabbed arms and the danskin tops that look just like the ones all the girls used to wear in high school. He whistles to himself as he heads back into the kitchen to pour another cup of coffee, then he rolls and lights another joint and sits down at the kitchen table, watching the smoke curl through the shafts of sunlight that stream through the old double paned windows. He calls the dog in from the back yard and scoops chunky food into her bowl from a blue plastic garbage can that that has a lock down lid so she can not get in and help herself whenever she feels like it .The wizard is on the chunky side himself with tiny brown eyes and a smooth shiny head but he likes his dogs to stay thin. They live longer that way. The dog in a medium size Shepard mix with black ears and big brown eyes that she fixes on the wizard as she wolfs down her food. He pads around the kitchen and washes some dirty dishes , cracked bone white china plates with pink flowers and gold rims .He puts them in the dish rack to dry and walks in to the bedroom to take his favorite suit out of the old waterfall wardrobe. Then he grabs a broom and hastily sweeps up the wrap around porch. The sound of Stevie ray fills the air and the wizard is amazed at this sign from the sky. Rod was crazy about Stevie Ray.
When we troop past the white Victorian house with green trim the moon faced man sitting on the porch tips his black silk top hat .He is wearing a moth eaten suit with velvet lapels. We are heading to Jacks Rock, Christopher’s favorite fishing spot. I have not been to Tomkins cove in years so I assume that this is the same wide flat rock where I spent many teenage afternoons smoking pot and downing Quaaludes with other pretty girls in peasant tops and ragged jeans. When we reach our destination I can see that I have been mistaken. This rock is just across the river from the Indian Point reactor and it is only large enough for one man to fish upon.
When one of my remaining brothers steps out onto the rock the ashes fall in a thick grey waterfall with no romantic wind to blow them fancifully about .As my sister reads some lyrics from a Stevie Ray song, I wonder who Jack was. I wonder which one of Christopher’s crack addled friends thought it would be a good idea to scatter his remains in front of a nuclear power plant and I wonder if my mother will get through this. But most of all I wonder why I was able to cast drugs aside with a restless shrug and why Christopher could not or would not do the same.
As walk past the man in the top hat on our way back to the car it dawns on me that he is someone who knew my brother as Rod, a nickname that everyone in my family resolutely refused to adopt. I raise my sad blue eyes to meet his bloodshot ones before following my family round the bend.