Everyone had been in the pocket from the first note, the changes
were clicking, and the harmonies elevated the sound. A grin
stretched across Dean’s face. The pressure his hyperactive son put
on his marriage, the stress of running a small business, and the miraculous pregnancy pushing the band apart had ceased to exist. He was the tempo. Over his rack tom and between the crash and ride, he could see the fans packed at the front of the stage, dancing as hard as they’d been since the opening number. And when the ladies climbed to the top of their amps for the last instrumental break, he knew they felt the energy too. But the feeling had to end; he hit the final note on the crash, and stepped out from behind his kit.
Jennifer, the bass player, blew the wavy bangs from her face. “It was good, right?”
He put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “Hell yeah, it was good.”
“I don’t know,” Amy said, lifting her guitar strap over her head. “Thought maybe the first chorus in ‘Blue’ was a little off.”
“Don’t overanalyze it,” he said. “It was fine.”
She looked out at the applauding crowd, then shrugged her slender shoulders, and
placed her purple Fender on its stand. They jumped down to the floor. Fans and new faces approached. An assortment of hipsters, rockers, and Saturday nighters shook his hand and patted his back. “That was some set. Great show. Fantastic, man.” He glanced over at the merch table at the back of the club. T-shirts and Zip drives of the new album were flying off it. Too bad none of this would make a damn bit of difference.
~ ~ ~
After a sweaty fifteen minutes stuck underground between subway stations due to an unexplained police emergency, Dean hustled into a nondescript building of gritty brick on West 23rd street. After crossing the faded linoleum and punching the fourth-floor elevator button, he waited, and waited some more. Finally, the door rattled open and a collection of curly-tipped mustaches under feathered fedoras traipsed out carrying banjos and acoustic guitars. One bumped Dean’s leg with a case, and not only neglected to apologize, but didn’t even acknowledge his presence. No matter, the world was full of asshole musicians, and today was no day to let one knock him off stride. “Telescope” had debuted at number 22 on the College Music Journal chart. This was unprecedented momentum, if only he and Amy could convince Jennifer to keep it going.
On the fourth floor, young Jimmy sat behind the desk wearing his trademark black T-shirt and bobbing his head to the Motörhead tune throbbing over the sound system. “You’re the last one here,” he said and scratched at a tattoo on his arm far too faded for someone his age to have. “They’re in 3B. By the way, heard you guys on FMU. Congratulations.”
“It’s a good start,” Dean said. “We’ll see where it goes.” He traversed the maze-like hallways smudged and chipped by equipment, and opened the soundproof door by the candy machine.
Both of the ladies stood in front of the drum kit, guitars plugged into the amps and hanging from their shoulders. They wore ragged jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers, a look that seemed to emphasize, rather than hide, the creeping gray in their hair and the creases growing at the corners of their eyes. An appearance Dean knew he shared, and not the best one for success in a young person’s game. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, “train took forever.”
“That’s okay,” Jennifer said. “Did you see?”
“Oh, I saw.” He took his stick bag around the kit and took out a pair. The first thing he had to do was raise the stool, so the rest of the configuration was no surprise. Had to be a metal guy in here last, maybe young Jimmy’s group, because the toms, the crashes, and the ride faced him like mirrors. He chuckled, remembering his first band, now two decades gone, as he made his way around the kit flattening the drums and straightening the cymbals.
“We were working on vocals before you got here,” Jennifer said.
“Okay. I’m almost done.” He let the sticks bounce on the snare. The action was tight. And then the rack tom went blurry, swam a bit. Dropped sticks clattered. He rubbed his eyes, tried to stay focused.
He couldn’t answer. Head floating, then dead against his neck, right arm twitching, vision trapped on the base of the high-hat until he was looking through the floor at nothing at all. Just come through, try to come through.
“He’s having another one.”
“He’s going to be a bit. Let’s do more vocals. ‘Libra’ chorus. 1, 2, 3, 4. How strange it is, strange it is. Did you change your part? No, but I’ve been thinking I should change from the 3rd to the 5th when we say strange the first time. Let’s try it. How strange it is, strange it is. What do you think? I think you might be right. Let’s try it again. How strange it is, strange it is. And again. How strange it is, strange it is.”
The assault on his brain began to recede, and little by little Dean was able to regain control of his body and thoughts. He gently rubbed his temples with his fingertips. “You’re right, it sounds better that way,” he said, and reached into his stick bag in hope of finding aspirin. He was in luck.
“With the 5th.”
Amy nodded. “You okay to play?”
“Just need a few minutes. Keep doing what you were doing, and then we’ll give it a shot.” He watched and listened as they worked. It was a rare thing, this band. He couldn’t imagine a petite mal seizure handled with such grace by any of the other people he’d played with. It had happened a few times and been greeted with stoned horror or, even worse, a sort of bumbling kindness he was helpless to respond to and, therefore, resented. But these women knew to pay no attention and let him come back on his own. It’d be almost impossible to replace them. “All right,” he said, “let’s give it a go.”
It wasn’t long before Amy lifted her hand and they came to an uneven halt that sounded like notes spilling over the edge of a bucket.
“It’s me,” Dean said. “Guess I don’t have it after all.”
“It’s not you,” Amy said. She turned to Jennifer. “Something wrong?”
She tapped bitten down fingernails against her bass. “I know what you’re both thinking.”
Amy emitted a frustrated sigh. “I was thinking we could get some rehearsing done.”
“No, you were wondering just what exactly we’re rehearsing for.”
This was tricky territory; he had to choose his words carefully. But he’d yet to completely recover, and his thoughts still lumbered like drifting clouds. “We’ve never had this kind of momentum,” he finally said and immediately regretted the hopelessly clumsy attempt.
“I can still play New York and East Coast day trips,” Jennifer said.
“That’s not going to move the needle,” Amy said. “What’s the use of getting airtime out west if we don’t show up and play there?”
“I’m sorry,” Jennifer said. “But I can only do what I can do.”
There had to be a way to argue his case without looking like a selfish prick. After all the work they’d done he had to think of something… “Okay, so it’s four months,” he said, stalling for time.
“That’s doable,” he said. “Went on tour once with a pregnant guitarist. She did fine. A club in Iowa even outlawed smoking for the night. They had these handwritten signs, ‘Baby on Board No Smoking.’ It was a trip. We set up her gear, kept her up front in the van the whole tour; eventually she had a healthy baby girl.”
“You know,” Amy said. “That could work. Right, Jen?”
She shook her head. “How old was this woman?”
Dean couldn’t exactly recall, so it didn’t feel dishonest to pad her age. “Don’t know, probably about thirty.”
Jennifer fixed him with a stony glare.
It’d been stupid to lie, if only he could think straight.
“I’m thirty-six,” she said. “It’s too risky.”
“None of us are getting any younger,” Amy said.
There’d been a sharp edge to that comment, and Dean wanted to end the conversation before the situation worsened. “Let’s just agree to disagree for today,” he said. “We can talk again next rehearsal.”
They played but nobody tried anything new or made any suggestions. Mercifully, the end of the paid time arrived, and they gathered gear in stiff silence. After wearing false faces for young Jimmy, and then an awkward elevator ride, the band reached the street and went their separate ways.
~ ~ ~
Dean opened the hall door to his Bay Ridge condo. Toys littered the wall-to-wall carpet from one end of the combination living and dining room to the other. His wife Cindy turned from the laptop on the table. Stray hairs had worked free from her ponytail and emphasized the impatient curl of her full lower lip. Billy sat in the easy chair, perpetually untied sneakers dangling above the floor, glaring at the empty television screen.
“Am I glad you’re home,” Cindy said and then faced their boy. “Are you going to tell your father what happened today?”
He grimaced back at her and then turned back to the blank screen. “No.”
“Well, I can see by the look of this place that he hasn’t been picking up his toys.”
Billy started to rise.
“Don’t you move,” Cindy said. “He’s in a time-out because of his day at school. Want to tell your father about it?”
“Ms. Redding called yet again. Seems he can’t stop talking during class, even when she’s trying to teach. And then when she tries to correct him, he’s very rude.”
“What’d you say?”
Dean pointed down the hallway. “Go to your room. I’ll deal with you later. And don’t you dare get on that computer.”
The boy slid onto the floor, kicked a stuffed monkey out of his way, and hung his head until he closed the door behind him.
Dean bent over his wife and kissed her. “Was it really any worse or just more of the same?”
“It’s embarrassing. That woman knows I’m a teacher, and look how he keeps acting. It’s a reflection on me, and you too. I know she thinks that. Something has to be done.”
“I don’t care what anybody says,” he snapped. “We’re not putting him on any damn meds.”
“Whoa, whoa,” she showed her palms. “Nobody said that. What happened today, groucho? More trouble with your pools?”
“Always. Haven’t replaced the one in Hackensack yet, and I’m starting to lose clients. But that’s not the problem.”
“What is it then?”
“Chart spot didn’t matter. Jennifer won’t budge on the tour.”
Cindy shook her head. “You don’t really blame her, do you?”
“No, of course not. Still…”
“You know how long she’s been trying.”
“I know, I know, but the timing… Why bother putting the album out if we’re not going to support it?”
“So the situation isn’t perfect. Remember how it was with Stan?”
“Crazy as those guys were, they’d never let a chance like this go by. I’ve waited twenty-five years for a break like this. And it’s not just me; I think Amy’s more pissed than I am.”
“Oh, please,” she raised both hands, and let them crash to her side. “Amy’s pissed. What about me? Think I like working all day and then coming home exhausted to face the tantrums and time-outs by myself? Just so you can gallivant around the country and be the indie darling of the rock clubs?”
“You never said anything before.”
“And you talk a big game about keeping him off meds, but it doesn’t mean much if you’re not around to help out, does it?”
He waited until the angry glimmer in her eyes faded a bit. “Those are separate issues, and you know it,” he finally said.
She acknowledged his point with a curt nod. “I’m frustrated,” she said. “I don’t see why you can’t just make music and stay home.”
“Well, there’s no point in arguing about it. I’m stuck here anyway.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I don’t think so. Enlighten me.”
“Stuck in New York. Where everyone already knows us and there’s nothing to be gained musically, that’s all.”
“Sorry, but I think her pregnancy is a blessing—”
“Of course it is,” he interrupted.
“And so is the canceled tour,” she continued. “At least it’ll be easier to find another pool.”
“Like I couldn’t nail a phone to my head in a van just as easy—” Raising his voice caused sharp pain, and he rubbed his fingertips in small circles over his temples.
“Had a little one today.”
She lowered his hands and gently took over massaging his head. The seizures had returned just over two years ago after over a decade of remaining dormant, so like the women in the band she knew by now not to make a big deal. Fortunately, a quick change in medication had reduced their frequency and ferocity. There was nothing more to be done. Nor did he want to do anything more. As it was, he wondered if the medication wasn’t robbing him of something, perhaps preventing him from being his true self.
The beating of drums leaked from his practice room.
“Want me to tell him to stop?” she said.
“No, I’ll go tell him.”
He opened the soundproof door onto a collision of worlds. His kit, cocooned by sound pads on three walls, and the music stand to the right occupied one side of the room. The other half contained his son’s twin bed covered with a blanket imaged with the logos of major league baseball teams, and yet another chaotic swirl of coloring books and toys on the carpet. Some of this clutter extended to the bases of his drum stands, in much the same way that there were splinters and stick chips littering the boy’s space, and sound pads where posters of ball players ought to be. It occurred to Dean that if he’d dedicate more time to his swimming school, perhaps he could afford a bigger place.
Billy was sitting on the stool, feet dangling above the pedals, striking the floor tom and snare with what Dean was proud to recognize as a triplet pattern they’d practiced. He thought perhaps he should correct the boy’s grip on the sticks, then changed his mind, leaned against the doorjamb, and watched his son play.